Alaska’s Hospitality Recruitment Challenge
“Who wants to work just four months of the year?”
Alaska boasts incredible summers with long days and an abundance of natural beauty. As soon as the snow and ice begin to melt, tourists arrive en masse and businesses statewide open their doors to accommodate visitor needs: accommodations, food, and fun. For those in need of work, Alaska’s summer season is abundant with hospitality- and tourism-related jobs, but there is one major hitch, most of these positions are seasonal, lasting just about four months.
Hospitality and recreational venues regularly seek out new talent by finding new and unique recruiting methods, and establishing incentives for employees who return each year.
“It’s interesting as it’s kind of a bifurcated industry right now,” says Economist Neal Fried, the state tourism segment is “looking really good” and expected to continue to grow in the future. The local hospitality business segment, however, isn’t as fortunate, says Fried—the restaurant and tavern sectors are experiencing a softening due to Alaska’s recession.
Alaska’s tourism industry is one of extremes with vast fluctuations in employment numbers. Fried uses the Denali region as an example: unemployment can be as low as 2 percent in the summer and hit 20 percent in the winter. “That is a real challenge for recruitment because who wants to work for just four months of the year?” He adds that trying to recruit from outside of Alaska is getting tougher as there are greater job opportunities in the Lower 48, also a result of its healthy economy.
Holland America Group
Seasonal employees for Holland American Group have a wide range of opportunities and often return to take new roles to expand hospitality skill sets.
At Alyeska Resort, employee training programs play a critical part in retaining the resort’s workforce, according to Human Resources Director Kaleen Haines.
As a year-round destination, the resort—located about forty miles from Anchorage in the heart of Girdwood—offers summer and winter excursions and features the 300-room Hotel Alyeska.
“Hospitality is a fast-paced industry that requires continual learning and growth to keep in stride with our customers’ expectations,” says Haines. This has prompted the resort to embrace several new technologies, including an online learning management system that helps the resort systematically train and develop employee skills.
“We hope that this leads to both an enhanced customer experience as well as an enriched employment experience for our staff,” says Haines, adding that recruiting, hiring, and retaining workers isn’t challenging on all fronts.
“It’s yes and no. It really depends on the position. More specialized positions can be challenging, but that is likely the case for many of the companies operating in Alaska. As a whole, we are pretty lucky here in Girdwood and at the resort. Girdwood is a unique place that has a special draw of its own, and the resort brings an amazing group of people from season to season to appreciate all that the summer and/or winter has to offer. It seems that many people are interested in adventure, and that is something we have plenty of,” she says.
Some challenges related to employment recruitment are cost and lack of housing for seasonal employees near tourist destinations.
“We offer onsite employee housing, seasonal bonuses, and have a quality benefits package. We have a strong wellness and safety initiative throughout our organization,” says Haines. The resort also offers workers a variety of health, wellness, and recreational discounts.
At Holland America Group, which includes Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, and Seabourn in North America, employee incentives are far ranging and include free cruise opportunities.
Holland America Group, which has operated in Alaska for seventy-one years, also owns the Westmark hotel chain in Alaska. Holland America Group offers traditional cruises and land-sea cruise tours, with excursions ranging from river rafting to a journey exploring Denali. More than half the vessels in its fourteen-ship fleet sail to Alaska, carrying between 1,400 and 2,100 passengers, and featuring everything from spas and salons to cooking and culinary experiences.
Of course, each of customer experience requires employees and the more amenities and excursions offered, the greater the need for qualified seasonal workers.
“It is a tough time to find the number and quality of workers we need for our seasonal business in Alaska,” says Jeanne Amey, director of shoreside talent acquisition. She says the most difficult jobs to fill are skilled positions, including driver guides, line cooks, and maintenance positions.
“But these are also fantastic ground-level job opportunities for those interested in developing a career in hospitality and building their skill sets,” Amey says, noting the company strives to provide plenty of opportunity for seasonal employees to move into full-time roles.
Amey says that at least one Holland America Group vice president began as a driver working in the Denali region and that her department is in the process of hiring an employee who began as a seasonal worker in Alaska. A critical component to Holland America Group’s hiring strategy for all workers is training.
“We offer training for thousands of jobs in industry, from working at the front desk of a hotel to serving as a guide on a train,” as well as hundreds of roles in back-end operations, Amey says.
“Our business model allows us to plan ahead with our workforce management so we know how many workers and what skill sets we’ll need before the season even begins and do the training accordingly to make sure we’re ready,” she says. Many employees actually take on different roles season after season, which helps them grow their hospitality skill set.
“The seasonal nature of the work has its built-in challenges, such as retaining the workforce season after season,” says Amey.
To overcome that challenge Holland America Group works closely with Alaska-based recreational enterprises, such as ski resorts, to build reciprocal relationships.
“That, in addition to the benefits we offer, such as free cruising benefits, work together to help us get the numbers we need for the season once we open up.”
Engagement and interaction with Alaska communities is extremely important, says Amey, as are the company’s efforts to work with schools and universities to build awareness among students of job opportunities with the company.
That effort begins on the high school level, and beginning this year includes a scholarship program for students in Alaska’s more remote areas, including Ketchikan and Sitka.
“The intention is to continue this support of high school students who want to go into trades,” Amey says. To that end, the company initiated an endowment program with the University of Alaska that is focused on Alaska’s youth with the goal of supporting a strong workforce for years to come.
“You have to start on the high school level to make sure we are supporting the hospitality educational process from the very beginning,” Amey explains. “We just don’t find the numbers we need in Alaska directly.”
Holland America Group
The position of tour director is just one of hundreds of hospitality roles Holland America Group recruits employees for each year.
Many hospitality venues in Alaska aren’t as vast as Holland America Group and don’t have tremendous resources for recruiting, training, and staff retention. But they do have support from the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant, and Retailers Association (CHARR), a nonprofit focused on helping fulfill the needs of Alaska’s hospitality industry.
The organization, according to President and CEO Pete Hanson, provides training programs, legislative and government relations, informational services, and membership services and promotes the industry.
It’s a key support program for many members given the tight labor market.
“Honestly, some people would rather not work at all than take a job that starts at $11 per hour. As a result, they are missing out on a great opportunity. This is an industry that will provide an opportunity for anyone who wants to work,” he says, noting that one third of all Americans’ first job was within the hospitality industry.
“It’s where they can learn skills that will allow them to advance in the hospitality industry to become business managers or owners or make them successful in whatever else they decide to do—in college and beyond,” he says.
Alaska CHARR offers programs to train people for careers in culinary arts and hospitality business management, including a high-school focused ProStart technical education program providing training in culinary arts and restaurant management skills.
“There is a state-level competition and a national-level competition each year. Alaska just had two high school teams compete at the National ProStart Invitational in Providence, Rhode Island, a couple of weeks ago,” notes Hanson.
Not only does ProStart provide job skills, it instills confidence and teaches goal-setting, teamwork, and other key life skills. It also helps to correct the low wage aspect, since ProStart students often command a higher starting wage than young people without experience or training, notes Hanson.
The organization, which has been serving the hospitality industry since 1964, has an educational fund providing scholarships to Alaska residents who would like to pursue culinary arts or hospitality management degrees at the college level.
“Most of these students attend UAA, UAF, or another in-state school, but some also attend universities in the Lower 48. Currently we have scholarship recipients attending UNLV, Brown, Gonzaga, Johnson, and Wales and other institutions,” says Hanson.
Alaska CHARR also provides certified food protection manager training using the nationally-accredited food safety training ServSafe Food Safety Program. The group works with the National Restaurant Association on an apprenticeship program to train more chefs and hospitality industry managers.
“For people who would rather learn on-the-job, as opposed to in a classroom setting, the apprenticeship program will get them marketable skills that employers in our industry need,” says Hanson.
Judy Mottl writes about important issues country-wide with an affinity for Alaska.