Ready your pitchforks readers, this won’t be a popular opinion. But I have some pretty interesting data to back up my theory.
That’s right, there’s going to be a bit of math involved, I apologize in advance.
As many of you already know, there is a severe staffing shortage currently plaguing the hospitality industry in Sevier County.
Signs like this one at Huck Finn’s Catfish in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., can be found throughout the area as restaurants, hotels and attractions struggle to find and retain staff.
The shift can be easily pinpointed to the spring of 2020, for reasons we are all well aware.
Sevier County’s booming tourism industry was brought to an abrupt halt and almost overnight, unemployment skyrocketed from an average 4% to almost 30%.
Thousands of people were forced to find another way to make money or consider a major career change.
But something peculiar happened when local businesses, restaurants and attractions recently reopened their doors.
The tourists returned, but the employees did not.
The real reason employees are not returning to their former jobs
The reason I wanted to write this editorial is that I believe a disproportionate amount of blame on why workers are not returning to their old jobs is being placed on unemployment benefits.
I can feel you picking up those pitchforks already. But hear me out!
While unemployment benefits are likely keeping some people at home, because who wouldn’t prefer to stay at home while earning an extra $300 per week from the federal government, these people are likely in the minority.
The real problem is two-fold.
First, we have to remember that this is a market that sometimes relies on J-1 foreign exchange students to bridge the gap, which just isn’t an option right now due to global travel restrictions.
Second, and perhaps the biggest factor that no one is talking about, we also have a group of people who were forced to reevaluate their careers, and some of them simply found a better way.
But what about the ‘huge’ unemployment numbers?
On March 14, 2020, right before all the craziness kicked off, there were an average of 881 weekly continued unemployment claims in Sevier County.
At the height of it in May of 2020, there were 12,554 weekly unemployment claims. And today, at the time of this writing, there are only 809 weekly unemployment claims.
That’s right, there are fewer people filing unemployment claims now than there were the week before the shutdowns.
The fact of the matter is, there is simply not a higher than average number of people “living off the government.”
Why I quit my job
I’d say it’s a safe bet that most people have considered quitting their jobs at some point in their career.
But few ever actually work up the courage to proactively walk away.
The fear of something worse awaiting us on the other side is enough to keep us from exploring other opportunities.
As the old saying goes, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.
But what happens when someone knocks that “bird” out of your hand and suddenly, your only option is to chase down those two metaphorical bush birds.
And that’s what I think happened in Sevier County. I believe a few people caught those birds.
Something similar happened to me back in 2017 when I made the conscious decision to walk away from a job that I hated.
It was scary at first. But I was able to find a new career that I loved.
I also cut out the commute and drastically increased my income.
Today, I simply couldn’t imagine going back to that old job.
If these former hospitality workers are anything like me, it’s quite possible that they too have simply found something better and perhaps closer to home. It’s possible they have no reason to go back.
After all, the hospitality industry can be brutal, and that is especially true in Sevier County.
Customers can be difficult, and affordable housing is sparse. Many workers spend hours each day commuting in from other towns.
Truthfully, if the county really wanted to step up and help, adding more affordable housing for people who actually work in the county would be a huge leg up for both employees and employers alike.
What should business owners do in the meantime?
While business owners obviously know more about the inner workings of their own businesses better than I do, I think that employers will have to find a way to up their game.
Whether that be offering better benefits, built-in tips, higher wages or just a better work environment, business owners will need to become more creative and competitive to attract and retain quality staff.
And the best way to start that process, in my humble opinion, is to simply ask the people what they need.
Call your former employees and ask them what you can do to incentivize a return. Ask your current staff for suggestions on what you can do to make their lives a little better. Ask prospective employees about what they are looking for. Post the question on Facebook.
Start the dialogue, and the answers might just surprise you.
What can customers do to relieve the burden?
We, as customers and patrons, can also help out by remembering to be kind and generous to local hospitality workers and wait staff.
It has been a hard couple of years for everyone. We can each do our own part by treating each other with grace and respect.
Have you or someone you know recently left a job in the hospitality industry? Are you an area business currently suffering from staffing shortages? Tell us your story in the comments, we would love to hear from you.