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HospitalityMaine: Workforce Shortage Could Derail A Strong Tourist Season

A sign at Old Orchard Beach in May 2020.
Rebecca Conley
Maine Public file
A sign at Old Orchard Beach in May 2020.

Maine's hospitality industry has reason to hope this summer will be better than last year, when the state forced restaurants to limit hours and tourists faced testing and quarantine requirements. This summer, those restrictions are expected to be gone — but challenges remain.

Maine Public host Irwin Gratz spoke with Steve Hewins, executive director of the HospitalityMaine Education Foundation, about the coming season.

Gratz: How are bookings looking so far for the upcoming season?

Hewins: Advance bookings are strong. In fact, many of our members across the state, mostly along the coast and in some of the mountain resorts, are reporting levels at 2019, which was a record year for Maine's hospitality industry. So there's a lot of excitement about that.

So that's the good news. Now, what's the bad news perhaps going into summer?

The other side of the coin is the fact that we also, like 2019, for different reasons, don't have the employees that are needed to meet that demand. And that's what's making a lot of people anxious right now. And the need to really try to attract people back to the industry is strong.

So let's talk first of all, for people who may not be familiar with the industry, about what the population is that Maine's summer tourism businesses normally rely on for this kind of seasonal help.

The hospitality sector itself, which is restaurants, hotels and all the businesses that support and are supported by them, employed in 2019 around 79,000 Maine people. At the end of 2020, the end of the pandemic, it was down to 51,000. And more recently, the Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information, part of the Department of Labor, reported that there are 16,000 fewer employees in hospitality than there were a year ago. So we really have a shortage right now of at least 16,000 people with positions that are available right now that need to be filled.

Who normally does fill those positions, though, I guess?

A lot of people left the industry during the pandemic because many of the restaurants in some hotels closed. And so people had to find different jobs and they moved on. We also have extended unemployment benefits now available for laid off workers, where they were getting exceptional benefits, really that has kept them on the sidelines. There's also the H2B and J1 foreign temporary workers that this industry has relied on in Maine, up to 10% of our industry were foreign temporary workers up until this year. The problem there is that the Trump administration put a cap on those folks as well as the pandemic restrictions that have not allowed international travel for many of our J1 workers, which are basically college students.

And probably when it comes to foreign workers, at least, regardless of what the government does with H2B, it just seems like the pandemic is not really going to allow a revival that international travel for this summer, anyway.

No, that's exactly true. No one's counting on that for this summer. So we're already expecting to not have those folks back. You know, long term, I don't think we want to rely on that group anyhow. We have to rebuild our industry new now so that we can sustain this going forward without having to have that reliance on those folks.

Well, what are some of the steps that perhaps you can take to do that?

What we're trying to do is to try to invite those folks on the sidelines to come back. We're going to be launching a campaign, HospitalityMaine is, in about a week and a half, a highly visible campaign to get people to reconsider and come back. We're going to try to go after the young kids too, the high school and college students, for summer work. Because the industry is coming back. Bringing back our industry helps bring back the festivals and the concerts and the things that we love about the state.

So when all is said and done, are you optimistic about the upcoming season?

I'm an optimistic person in general anyhow. And I would say that we're going to have folks that'll want to come here. The question is, will the employment situation derail what could be a very good recovery?