Economic Development

Some Essential Truths for Non-Essential Workers

Change. No matter what the circumstances, it teaches us lessons about our own beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses. This pandemic is the mother of all change, and as I write this essay, there is no clear end in sight. Even worse, we are all uncertain about what the economic ramifications will be when it’s over. For now, the job market has been split into “essential” and “non-essential” workers. This is an interesting turn of events, partly because it was so sudden and partly because it does not include me or my industry in the essential group.

The definition of “essential workers” varies slightly depending on what’s causing the emergency. Police, governmental, fire/emergency, and medical staff―these heroes are almost always considered essential no matter what the situation is. During a snowstorm in cold climates, you can include street maintenance, electricians, and tree services. For hurricanes, add carpenters, plumbers, and insurance claim adjusters to the list of essential workers. In the case of a pandemic, essential workers encompass grocery store employees, shipping/delivery service workers, and (due to the length of the crisis) educators.

Note who was not mentioned in the previous paragraph: Retailers, hoteliers, cruise ship/airline employees, or restaurant workers (beyond those processing takeout orders). If you are in these groups, or the massive amounts of businesses that support these industries (including me), then you (we) have been deemed non-essential for this crisis, and are getting laid off, furloughed, and terminated at an unprecedented rate. What does that mean in the long view of this crisis? It means that after battling to stay well, taking care of loved ones, and in many cases healing yourself from contracting this virus, the next battle will be to find work or return to work in a field where the landscape is sure to have changed.

Is it a new landscape? Really? Or is it simply an accelerated timeline of what was happening already?

Please allow me to illustrate my position with a recent short, true story. It feels like a lifetime, but it was a conversation I had ONE MONTH AGO EXACTLY:

I was working with a class of front-desk agents at a luxury hotel that had just implemented a new feature on their hotel app. Guests can now check in online through the hotel’s app, and it will produce a QR code on the guest’s smart phone that acts as a room key. There are several companies doing this already. It only makes sense that after the success of the airlines in allowing passengers to produce their boarding passes on their smart phones, hotels would eventually follow suit.

If you are not familiar with the business side of the travel industry, this is a good time to point out that hotels tend to follow a few years behind airlines’ technology with amazing regularity. (You might be thinking this is boring, but stick with me for the payoff.) Here are a few examples, in order of appearance:

  1. Reserving through GDS (global distribution systems) to save on staffing levels

  2. Reserving though direct website access to save further on staffing levels

  3. Offering loyalty-points (frequent flier benefits) to track spending habits

  4. Offering loyalty-points through branded credit cards to keep people loyal longer

  5. Changing prices based on season (manually) to capitalize (charge more) during busier times

  6. Changing prices based on demand through automated RMS (revenue management systems) to better handle volume and reaction times to fluctuations in the market

  7. Allowing people to check in ahead of time online to save on labor and allow RMS to forecast opportunities to oversell (airline seats/hotel rooms)

  8. Allowing people to pre-print and eventually simply sending them a QR code that acts as their boarding pass/room key to further save on staffing levels at the desks

That’s eight―count’em, EIGHT― examples of when the airline industry made a change to their business model and the hotel industry followed suit. Seems like a good predictor of the future, right?

So, back to me standing in front of a group of hotel front-desk agents, in a company that has just implemented QR codes on smart phones as room keys, thus eliminating the need to stop by the front desk at check-in…

A sassy, fun, young woman in the group asked, “Mrs. Buhler, now that we have an app where guests can just check in online without stopping by the desk, are we going to lose our jobs?”

I have learned to respond to this question with a question, and said to her, “Tell me something, Mary (not her real name). Imagine you are staying here. Would you rather check in with a person at the front desk, or would you check in on your phone?”

She didn’t even think about it, but quickly said, “On my phone, of course! I mean duh. Why would I stop by the desk when I can start my trip right away?”

This launched a spirited debate among the group. The thread of the conversation was that they might stop by the front desk if they were “really old fashioned” and didn’t know how to use a phone, or if they were on vacation and were bored (I doubted that one), or if they had a question or problem. One agent pointed out that the hotel is a union-backed property that is going to fight hard to protect their jobs. Even so, in a business model that’s already running at razor-thin profit margins, it might be better to find ways to make themselves more essential to the operation without needing a third party to intervene.

I cut in to the debate, still addressing ‘Mary’: “I do not think anyone here is losing their job, and did not hear anything about that. Still, since you are smart enough to see how technology is changing the market, and young enough to have decades more to go in your career, what if you also started training to do other positions on top of your current job? Lots of hotels are doing this already. They are combining jobs and elevating employees into more flexible, skilled roles.”

Her response was heartbreaking: “Do you mean like being a manager or something? Nah, that’s a lot of work and a lot of extra hours.” To hear this once would be sad. I hear this from people almost weekly, and it’s terrifying.

Over the past few years, I’ve been traveling around the world, preaching like a weird hospitality Nostradamus, that the industry is in trouble. In fact, on January 6, 2019, I wrote a blog entitled Millennials, Smartphones, and Staffing Levels: Is This the Death of Hospitality?, which I’m currently developing into a book. Like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, I’ve been quietly chirping, fading into the background, saying the things many people agreed with, but didn’t do anything about.  Now? I am even clearer in my assessment of the situation. Hopefully, some people will read this post and either help themselves or be in the position to help others who have a passion, as I do, for the travel, restaurant, spa, and hotel industry.

Here is a look into the imminent future, two to three months from now: Several businesses will be closed, unable to carry on due to past debts and current losses of several month’s income. Unemployment is expected to be at an all-time high world-wide, and people who are overqualified will be fighting for the limited jobs available.

What’s the answer? It’s going to be a tough time, but there are a few things YOU can do NOW to prepare for the best possible outcome:

  1. Read, train, be informed. There are lots of free seminars, webinars, and articles that can help you sharpen your skills and get the competitive edge when you’re back in the market. I’m taking a college certification program, a creative writing course, and looking at going back to school next winter to earn a degree I’ve always wanted. I’m 51 years old, decided I will never be younger than I am today, so I better hurry up. I also attend one free webinar per day, study French (je ne parle pas très bien le français), take care of my family, drink wine with friends on Zoom, AND binge watch TV―so even though I’m busy, I still have fun.

  2. Consider your long-term career. Perhaps you already have your dream job? Or perhaps you long to do something else? This is your chance to explore the possibilities to try something new. Ask yourself how stable your choice is; will there be demand for it in the future? Is there demand for it now? Also, if you hate the idea of being “non-essential” is there an essential job out there that interests you? I meet employees in their twenties who think that they’re too old to start something new, but people do it all the time. In fact,the 2017 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that on average, between the ages of 18 and 48 people hold 11.7 jobs.

  3. Get real with your money. I’ll discuss this in detail in another post, but it’s a sad truth―we all need money to live. While my real dream job would be “singing poet” nobody is going to pay me for that, so I have to figure out my expenses, then figure out what career (that I can reasonably attain) will allow me to take home this amount.

Lots to think about? Great! While it can be overwhelming, taking each step one at a time can put it into perspective and make it manageable. We are all in this crisis together, and the victims of this virus are constantly on our minds. However, if you’re lucky enough to be healthy, you can use this difficult time to work on something positive. Who’s with me?

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