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22 Oct, 2012

Why The “People Industry” Has a “People Problem”

imtiaz muqbil at the ITB Asia 2012 in Singapore

With the Asia-Pacific travel & tourism industry facing a major human resources crunch, attracting people to work in it has become as much of a challenge as getting them to stay in it. To address that issue, ITB Asia 2012 organised its first Future Leaders Forum, inviting about 100 of the top students at five polytechnics for a half-day interaction with industry executives to discuss opportunities and answer questions.

The session was designed to energise and excite the young people about future prospects. But between the lines, the discussion also helped pinpoint why the “people industry” often has a “people problem” and has difficulty attracting and retaining good people. Young people are being asked to join an industry which demands that they deliver high standards of service and excellence in exchange for low pay and benefits, long hours and high stress. A contradiction in terms, it clearly identifies the imbalances and gaps the industry has to plug.

The speakers were Joshua Gan, Lausanne Hotel School, student assistant (Admissions/Recruitment); Ms Suyin Lee, FCm Travel Solutions, General Manager; Mr. Ong Wee Min, Marina Bay Sands, Executive Director Expo (Sales); Nino Gruettke, Messe Berlin Singapore, Executive Director; Candice Lim, Ramada & Days Hotels Singapore at Zhongshan Park, Director HR; Ms Soon Le Ying, Ramada & Days Hotels Singapore at Zhongshan Park, Student. In the audience were about 100 students from five polytechnics, all top of their respective Dean’s lists. The students demographic ratio comprised about 60:40 men:women. The forum was the brainchild of Audrey Goh, 19, a trainee at ITB Asia.

Interestingly, two panelists were executives who had crossed both sides of the border. Ms Lee said she started off as a chartered accountant and is now in her 13th year in travel & tourism. Mr. Gan said he started off wanting to be a hotel GM but is now happily in recruitment, which involves working with students “and often their parents” to find them appropriate jobs.

The panelists were asked to identify what makes them happy about their jobs. How do they measure or compare happiness? By the absence of negatives? By salary? Title?  Ms Lee said she enjoyed being in an industry that is never routine but always has something that is interesting and challenging on a daily basis. Ms Lim said she was starting a new hotel and hence had a blank sheet to start crafting the human resources.  She said she had decided to focus on the staff’s happiness factor. “It’s not going to be easy but I decided to try it.” Mr. Ong said he enjoys networking with people and the fact that in this job, every day is different.

Narrating his own story, Mr. Gruettke said he has been with Messe Berlin for nine years, his first and only job. When headhunters approach him with job offers that will double his salary, he asks them if they can guarantee that his “happiness level” will also commensurately increase, and that the people he will work with will be as good as those presently. So far, he has not been persuaded to change.

Citing his own passion for interacting with people, he narrated his own most memorable experience at a hotel in India when a young waiter remembered the amount of sugar he liked in his cappuccino several hours after first serving him. He said, “I was blown away by how much attention he paid to keeping me happy.” Anxious to know what motivated the waiter, he recalled being told, “Just the expression on your face makes my job great. The others, they are just waiters. I try to be different, to remember (guests’) names, their dietary restrictions, their preferences. All that makes a lasting impression on them and makes my job a lot of fun.”

Before attending the forum, students were asked in advance to cite some of the questions they would like to see the panelists answer. One common question was: What qualities would the students need to succeed as hoteliers? They were presented with a tall order. They would have to be people persons, passionate about their jobs, willing to work long hours, possibly with not much reward, at least not early in their careers, enjoy the challenge of solving different problems every day, be innovative, have the ability to deal with pressure, need drive, curiosity, make good judgment and business decisions. Above all, they would need high levels of patience to push themselves “through the pain barrier,” according to one of the panelists.

It was also noted that the long-standing industry structures now faced the challenge of changing from a conventional model. Managing this change will also require people with guts and an innovative mindset. Increasingly, senior level managers need to know not only how to provide service but also run a business.

Mr. Gan said a basic education is necessary to help the students learn how to think and hence is no different from any other profession. However, he said that one of the advantages of gaining the people skills from a hospitality education is that they can join any industry because the same principles apply. “Half of my colleagues went into investment banking, branding companies, even the Red Cross,” he said. “Learning hotel management can help. They also need to acquire critical thinking and analytical skills for making sound judgment. Its not about the degree but about those package of skills that come with it.”

Another question was: What are some of the trends you see in the industry over the next five years and how will it be impacted by the advance of technology? The answer to this was the stock response. Yes, technology can help facilitate but there are some jobs that no amount of technology or robotics can handle – such as putting together complex itineraries, answering personalised questions. Technology can, however, be an important enabler. Ms Lee said one of her travel consultants knows enough about London to sell it as a destination but has never actually been there.

One student wanted to know how to differentiate himself during a job interview. He was told that interviewers look at the candidates’ potential to grow, background qualifications, educational level, attitude and potential leadership skills, and ability to handle different scenarios. They could also be asked what they feel to be the challenges the industry faces, and their answer will also tell a lot.

Mr. Gruettke said that at ITB Asia, his entire team of six participates in the interviews, and the women on the team are very much involved in the selection process because “men and women look at things differently. They can spot details that men may overlook.” He said interviewers want to be told what the candidates are passionate about such as a hobby or sports. “How well can you sell your own passion? We want to see how passionate you are about something you love, then it is our responsibility to make you passionate about your job as your hobby. The more passionate you are, the less you are likely to care about your salary and titles. We want to see how you think, how you prioritise and ask questions. We need your drive, your curiosity, your ability to challenge yourself. What is that key factor that is going to push you through the pain barrier?”

This editor, too, asked the students to indicate by a show of hands what criteria they use when deciding which companies to apply for jobs. I asked if they checked out a company’s environmental policies. Not many hands went up. I asked if they would prefer working with small/medium sized companies first rather than just chasing the multinationals. Quite a few hands went up. Both those responses did bust a few myths about what corporations think in terms of their criteria to attract talent. Later, Mr. Gan told me privately that the location of the prospective job was the most important criteria followed by the company’s brand image, and availability of management training programmes.

Later, the students sat for mentoring sessions with 15 executives from various branches of the industry and then walked the ITB Asia trade show floor to get better acquainted with the exhibitors and, possibly, future employers.

In many ways, however, the Future Leaders Forum delivered only a parochial perspective on key issues. All the students appeared to be from middle/upper-income families whose lives are entirely different from those at the real coalface of the industry. Across the Asia-Pacific, the real tourism jobs are being performed by migrants from low-income countries, such as those from the Philippines and India working in Singapore. Those low-income Singaporeans who have no choice are facing an uphill task in an increasingly expensive city. In many areas of the island-state, I spoke to the rank-and-file workers about their lives and livelihoods. Some of the stories were heart-rending.

At one restaurant, a Singaporean single mother of two was clearly looking unwell. She said she had to come to work anyway because her husband had abandoned her and the kids were still young. She gets paid S$1,200 for a five-and-a-half day week, with tips and overtime, she makes S$2,000. A taxi-driver of Malay origin who works nights said his aging parents cannot afford to live in Singapore any more and are moving to Malaysia where housing and living costs are cheaper.

In my five-star hotel, an intern from Taiwan said she was getting S$700 a month and makes S$1,200 after overtime. She came to Singapore to get some practical training and improve her English. At breakfast time, her job is to small-talk with the guests on food and service quality. In the same hotel, another Indian waiter said he was part of a group of workers on a two-year contract through a labour-supply agency. He makes S$1,200 a month, which can go up to S$1,700 with tips and overtime. He said that’s enough to maintain some savings. He stays four-to-a-room in a flat organised by the labour agency.

Not a single one indicated any “passion” for the job. They were happy to just have one. Without them, however, the lights of Singapore’s gleaming hotel towers and shopping complexes would be burning a lot less bright. I don’t think anyone has ever asked them about their “happiness levels.” This might be a good time to start.