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Hospitality help is hard to find: Tourism businesses looking for seasonal help

fr hospitality1Melanee Lester has been sorting through a 4-inch-high stack of applications on her desk for the last couple of weeks, trying to get Mast General Store fully staffed for the long tourism season ahead.

“I’ve gone through all of them and was only able to hire one person,” she said. “I still need three or four more people.”

It’s something many people in the hospitality industry are experiencing this time of year. While many restaurants, retailers and hotels have help wanted signs displayed in their windows or in the classified sections, finding the right fit has become a difficult task. Hiring seasonal employees is a little tricky — you want someone to work part-time hours, but they need to be flexible and able to work nights and weekends. Only a small percentage of the workforce seems to have that kind of flexibility — and that is the problem Mast General Store in Waynesville has been facing for years. 

“We get in a fair amount of applications, but most of them are kids going to school and can only work a couple of hours after school and in the summers,” Lester said. “But what we really need is year-round part-time help — that’s one of our biggest problems.”

Availability is important for a retail business that ramps up in the spring and summer, but Mast also has consistent business through the fall and holiday season as well. Mast has a total of 32 employees and about half of them are part-time. While finding the right people to fill the positions may be challenging, Lester said turnover hasn’t been a major obstacle, especially for the full-time employees.

“We have employees who have been here 10 to 25 years,” she said. “We also have a lot of young people right out of school trying to get a teaching job or something, but they wind up being here several years. It’s still hard for young people to find jobs in their fields.”

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Offering a starting pay that’s above the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and having a specific training program for new employees also helps Mast hire and retain better employees, but Lester understands that many smaller mom-and-pop businesses don’t have the resources to do those things.  

Many of the hotel owners in Maggie Valley and the downtown merchants in Waynesville are locally owned and operated with maybe one or two employees even during the height of the tourism season. For them, seasonal hiring isn’t a big issue. Charlee Ruiz and her sister, Paula, purchased The Cardinal Inn in Maggie Valley a year ago and they run the entire 10-room hotel with the help of one part-time handyman. 

“We have one person part-time that helps with cleaning and ground maintenance, and he’s been with us ever since we opened,” Ruiz said. 

Jordan Shuford, manager of Five Star Inn in Maggie Valley, said the hotel is in need of an assistant manager since the last one gave his notice a couple of weeks ago. While many people have come by to apply for the position, Shuford said no one has met the qualifications. 

“It’s a full-time position but you have to live here — we need at least two people here at all times to keep the place running,” he said. 

The job would entail cleaning, customer service and anything else that needs to get done at the 23-room independent hotel that stays open year-round. But not many people are able to live at the hotel and basically be in a roommate situation along with Shuford. 

“It’s hard to keep anybody because you have to be here all the time, but it’s a fun place to work — always something to keep you busy,” he said. 

Some of the larger hotels in the area are experiencing a labor shortage as they try to hire housekeepers and customer service employees for the summer. 

Working in the restaurant business presents its own unique challenges. According to the National Restaurant Association, the 2015 turnover rate in the restaurant and accommodations sector was at 72 percent — up from 67 percent in 2014. That might sound high but it’s actually down from pre-recession figures — turnover was around 80 percent from 2002 to 2006. In comparison, the average turnover rate for all private sector workers was 46 percent in 2015. 

There are a number of factors that contribute to the high turnover rate for restaurants, but the Bureau of Labor reports that high turnover in the hospitality field may be a good sign for the overall economy. 

“Most sectors of the economy saw their overall turnover rates decline during the challenging economic environment of 2008-2010, as people were less likely to quit their jobs with fewer other employment opportunities available,” according to a recent report from the NRA’s Chief Economist Bruce Grindy. “However, the quit rate rose in recent years, which indicates that workers are increasingly confident in the labor market and are willing to move to another job.”

Julie Katt, owner of Blossom on Main in downtown Waynesville, said she seems to always be in need of reliable employees, especially during the summer months. At the moment, she is looking to hire a server and a line cook for the kitchen. 

“With it being a restaurant and such a seasonal community, it’s hard to keep good employees,” Katt said. “The restaurant business seems to be more transient so it seems I’m always looking for new people.”

She’s been surprised at the number of people who come in to fill out an application that don’t seem to be very motivated, whether it’s the way they are dressed or how they communicate with people. Katt said she is willing to hire and train the right person even if they don’t have any experience, but they at least need to have communication and customer service skills if they are going to be interacting with customers. 

“I’m looking for someone well-spoken and someone who is well educated enough to converse with customers and remember orders,” she said. “But sometimes I’ll hire someone and they don’t show up or they’ll come in and I put the time and money into training them and then they don’t show up for their regular shifts.”

Though it’s been a struggle to find reliable and qualified employees, Katt feels like she has a good team lined up to take on the tourism season. With 10 employees, she feels like it’s a good number to be able to give her full-time servers enough stability throughout the year while also allowing a couple of her part-time student employees to fill in during the busier summer months. 

“Employees are the face of your business, and if they have a bad day and treat customers rudely it gives us a bad reputation,” Katt said about the importance of hiring good people. “I tell my staff all the time we’re only as good as our weakest employee.”

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