Mountain West NC Tourism Economy’s Answer to the Worker Shortage

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A downtown area of a small town.

Photo 131027891 / Franklin North Carolina © Jacqueline Nix | Dreamstime.com

Western North Carolina is dotted with picturesque small towns. From their vibrant Main Streets to their eclectic arts scenes to their breathtaking mountain scenery, these tiny municipalities are hot spots for people wanting to get away from it all. Each Spring, Summer, and Fall, Western NC (aka “west of Asheville”) swells far beyond its capacity hosting tourists from around the world. Come Winter, it quiets down a bit, much to the relief of the local population, giving them time to breathe and plan for the coming year’s flood of visitors.

Throughout the pandemic, Western NC has found itself unprepared for the droves of tourists, most of whom came from large East coast cities hoping to escape the high density urban areas by coming into the open and secluded environments that this region has to offer. While in 2020 and early 2021 most businesses had to alter their  operations because of COVID restrictions and public health guidelines, tourism revenue in the more popular destinations largely rebounded to pre-pandemic levels in 2020  and surged in 2021. A notable exception to this was the entertainment sector, which experienced the most negative impacts of COVID because of government mandates on gatherings. This public health policy totally halted any business that depended upon live events, performances, or ticketed events as their main revenue source. Decreased indoor patron capacity also had a major impact on the accommodations and retail industries.

By end of 2021 those hospitality businesses that survived the “worst of the pandemic” continue to be plagued by the challenges of an economy dependent on the tourism sector. Tourism economies carry a double-edged sword. Heavy visitor spending may reduce the need to increase resident taxes for necessary services like police, fire, and medical facilities, but the number of new folks in town, even if only seasonally, crushes local amenities ill-prepared for their arrival. In order to keep visitors coming, businesses ramp up their services to meet the increased demand.

And that means the jobs there, which largely fall in retail, accommodation, outdoor recreation, and entertainment, are seasonal and may not pay what is considered a “living wage.”  In other words, it’s hard to get ahead or even get by, solely on the wages of a front line short-order cook, when the window of work availability opens only for a short time each year.

Urban destinations wanting to hire hospitality, retail, and tourism workers have a large talent pool to draw from, but this is not the case in small sparsely populated areas. Businesses in tourism dependent rural areas have to be especially on their game when it comes to recruitment and retention, particularly now in the time of the Great Resignation.

Since the Fall of 2020, NC State Extension has been facilitating the CREATE BRIDGES process in the Mountain West region of North Carolina, including Jackson, Swain, Macon, and Graham Counties and the Qualla Boundary. The purpose of this process is to assess the needs of both employers and employees in the retail, accommodation, entertainment, and tourism sectors through surveys, interviews, and public forums, then engage them with other community stakeholders to brainstorm solutions. Not surprisingly, the number 1 need expressed by employers was to fill their job openings with employees who demonstrate excellent customer service skills and who understand what it means to be a good employee (strong work ethic, communications, teamwork and collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, and leadership). Many employers, frustrated at the limited talent pool available to them in the region, indicated that they would be thrilled at having local applicants without the desired skills, and counting on on-the-job trainings to bring them up to speed quickly.

Employees surveyed in the region’s tourism and hospitality sectors indicated good satisfaction levels with their current jobs, with over half of them receiving some form of benefit or promotion opportunity. Of the employees that are considering leaving their current position, most are doing so because of personal advancements such as growing a family or furthering their education. Some stated that the lack of affordable housing in the region, unhealthy working environment, feeling overworked, and retirement were listed as reasons why they were considering leaving or have left their employer in the past. Employees also stated that marketing, database management, specialized equipment skills, safety, CPR, SafeServ, and spreadsheet functionality, were amongst the top desired skills.

To address the needs of both employers and employees, the CREATE BRIDGES team has begun implementing a number of new strategies. All hospitality businesses in the region are encouraged to post the SPARK flyer in their windows. SPARK (show Support, be Patient, Act with Respect, and spread Kindness) is a reminder to visitors that as guests, they are expected to abide by the Golden Rule when interacting with the local workforce. 

A second strategy, intended to help employers be better managers, was the Got Your Back Business Summit. This day-long workshop, held in late April 2022, provided retail, hospitality, and tourism businesses with a number of tools to both recruit and retain employees in their establishments. Participants heard from industry pros about how employees can turn their jobs into careers, as well as how employers can both find employees (through the development of dynamic job postings and the nurturing of a happy and engaged staff) and hold onto their employees through the use of specific job expectations and the provision of creative  and industry specific benefits. Participants were told that managers should lead by example and create more equity in the workplace, as well as engage their employees as much as possible in workplace decision-making while empowering them through skills trainings designed to promote their career growth potential. 

All Got Your Back Business Summit workshop sessions were recorded and will be made available soon to more sector businesses in the region. The objective of this summit is to build the number of businesses who are officially recognized as a “Got Your Back Business”  in the region, so that job seekers will know that their potential employers care about them and recognize that happy employees mean more revenue for both the business and its workers.

In addition to tapping into less traditional labor pool options, including retirees and veterans, other upcoming strategies planned for the region include:

  •       Building the talent pipeline for these businesses through local school career programming;
  •       Engaging local college students to conduct “secret shopper” reviews of local businesses;
  •       Supporting the communication network of businesses to promote more peer-to-peer learning;
  •       Offering incentivized online and on demand soft and hard skills trainings for incumbent employees; and
  •       Enlisting employees as ambassadors in a regional campaign to build awareness among locals of the region’s many assets.

For more information on CREATE BRIDGES in the Mountain West NC region, contact Elissa Hashemi, CREATE BRIDGES Coordinator, ehashem@ncsu.edu.