Now more than ever, the hospitality industry is facing a huge talent challenge. Covid hollowed it out, many were asked to leave, even more left, those who stayed were overwhelmed and even more so now as travel recovers. The future lies in its ability to retain as well as attract new talent.
But how can it do that beyond holding job fairs, pushing open positions and speaking at career events about how big the industry is ? Well, we asked a Singapore university student, in her second year in medical school, Caitlyn Tan, to share her views and ideas. Truth is, she and her peers never even considered hospitality as a career – equating it to menial jobs and subservient labour.
But as she got to know the industry better through talking to mentors who work in hospitality, her mind shifted and she believes the way the industry can attract young talent like her is to effect a mindset change. Read on.
Taking on hospitality as a career – to be perfectly frank, this is a thought that had never once crossed my mind. It definitely wasn’t anywhere on my radar when I found myself at that pivotal point of university applications, armed with all of 17 years of worldly experience to choose a future career path.
In my case, this path turned out to be a steep slog through five years of tertiary education in the general direction of becoming a doctor. Growing up in Singapore’s competitive Asian society, I’ve long since internalised the pragmatic paradigms of professional degrees (medicine, law, accountancy etc) as being desirable above all else for their prestige, respectable pay and job security.
I nodded along to the popular opinion of computer science or finance as decent alternatives, made appealing by their lucrative job prospects in big tech companies, billion-dollar start-ups or powerful banks. Needless to say, perhaps the only acceptable reason one would repudiate these sought-after vocations would be in a fit of passion, to discover the world as a geologist or fulfill one’s brilliant talent in the Arts.
Throughout the entire soul-searching life-changing career decision process, hospitality was never a sector that received much airtime amongst me and my peers. Hospitality to me at 17 years old was essentially synonymous with hotel, where the potential job prospects that came to mind consisted solely of my own limited observations of hotel staff: receptionists, concierges, housekeepers and the like.
Hospitality to me instantly translated into menial labour. It was not uncommon to hear the so-called “horror stories” about hospitality’s hellish work-life balance with long hours and scarcely the status or salary to show for it. I definitely admit to passively subscribing to all the stereotypes shrouding this industry and harbouring many preconceived notions (mostly negative) about a life seemingly consigned to lip service in a hotel.
My perspective of what a job in hospitality entailed fell supremely short of the ideals held aloft by those in my generation. My friends and I have spoken fervently of our hopes for a job that would see us rise quickly through the ranks, where the challenging early days (or decades) of drudgery would eventually buoy us into comfortable seniority and its concomitant luxuries.
Oh and also, we’d like a competitive salary, flexible working hours and tons of employment benefits to go with that, please. And from what we knew of the hospitality industry at that time, being a front-desk attendant was never going to give us the career progression we desired.
Better to take on a marketing role at a private company, or you know, become an insurance agent or financial advisor or day trader. For the more righteous ones amongst us who were above being purely financially incentivised, a divine calling to some noble vocation like teaching or healthcare would probably check all the boxes for meaning in life and career satisfaction. Hospitality was never even on the list – for good reason too.
Seeing hospitality beyond front-facing workers and service
All this changed when I started getting into the hospitality industry as a writer. I interned at several different start-ups in this sector out of circumstance rather than choice, and was fortunate enough to talk with passionate people who loved their jobs in hospitality.
Beyond all the research I conducted to understand how the industry worked, it was speaking with these individuals that really opened my mind. They were the ones who showed me that hospitality was so much more than just the front-facing workers that customers see: hotels are entire ecosystems with different departments, supported by a wealth of diverse job scopes I had never even known existed in the setting of hospitality. Design, architecture, finance, sales and marketing, human resource, management –hotels have it all.
They were the ones who made me change my mind about hospitality with how much they loved their job. They found it a dynamic and fast-moving industry that challenged and excited them, with a range of choices from the middle-class hotels to the top-tier luxury destinations. They spoke of how the front-facing nature of their jobs challenged them to develop a comprehensive skill set of emotional intelligence, empathy and spontaneous problem-solving. It made them into better listeners, better speakers and on the whole more practiced at navigating unpleasant interpersonal situations.
Opportunities for personal development came in the form of conferences and seminars organised by the hotel groups, which later translated into personal mobility as they advanced in their career. As they climbed up the ladder from the necessary first rung of menial labour to the upper echelons of management, anticipating customer needs and curating exceptional experiences became a meaningful process that brought them joy.
They discovered a genuine desire to serve, knowing they have made a wholly positive difference in someone else’s lives. Many also initially joined this industry out of interest – all of them loved to travel, and they loved that they were able to give others this same wonderful experience. I realized it was essentially a business centered around delivering experiences instead of blind subservience, and it was this change in mindset that really opened my eyes.
What did it take for me to look at hospitality and see more than the confusing juxtaposition of a low paying, dead-end job with low status against the backdrop of blitzy glamour in a five-star luxury hotel?
Sell hospitality as centered around experiences, not just service
It took a change in mindset. It took talking with passionate individuals who really loved their jobs, who had found greater meaning and personal satisfaction from working in this industry. I believe that there has been a generational shift where many look down on the perceived “menial labour” jobs, leading to them prematurely rule out the entire hospitality industry as future career options. And that’s because all they know is all they see and hear, which are the appallingly difficult customers and all the accompanying grievances of dealing with them.
That’s why I believe that encouraging more youths to join the hospitality industry starts from a shift in mindset, however slight – it starts from helping them see this sector through a different lens, and be exposed to perspectives other than the dominant negative stereotypes.
I think what might make all the difference is a moment of inspiration, especially in one’s formative and fairly impressionable years. Speakers who are passionate about hospitality can go to secondary schools and share their experiences with students. Start YouTube channels or make TikToks.
Reach out to these kids and get them to see hospitality as centered around experiences rather than just service. Show them how rewarding the work can be. Perhaps not everyone will be convinced – most may not even care – but for the few that do, it may just make a world of difference.