HELP WANTED: Tuscaloosa-area hospitality industry rebounding, but more is needed – Tuscaloosa Magazine

Tuscaloosa’s hospitality industry, like that of the rest of the nation, was hard struck by the global coronavirus pandemic.
But as restrictions and rules have relaxed amid growing vaccine usage, situations are steadily improving.
And, for some businesses, employees are now coming back to work.
“My hiring situation improved significantly in September,” said Toby Wilson, founder of Tuscaloosa-based Wilson Hospitality Management Co., which owns and operates the two Hampton Inns in the Tuscaloosa market as well as the recently-opened Holiday Inn Express & Suites on Interstate Drive in Cottondale. “It just seems like more people are interested.”
That interest was sparked, in part, by a coordinated push to recruit workers for jobs in the local hospitality market. Spearheading the recruiting effort was West Alabama Works, a division of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, in partnership with Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports and the Tuscaloosa chapter of the Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Association.
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This “virtual job fair” ran from Aug. 26 through Sept. 9 and involved the participation of 36 hospitality-associated companies, marking the largest number of companies to participate in a single event of this type, according to Alex House, the director of communications and marketing for the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama.
The event also featured 148 job postings and attracted 508 individual job-seekers, resulting in 903 total applications for jobs, 247 of which were in the hospitality industry.
It was a good attempt, organizers said, and Wilson attributed some of the interest in his hotel openings to it.
“I think, for sure, it raised an awareness,” Wilson said. “And I think it did do its job in waking people up and making them see they can get jobs in the hospitality industry.”
But with positions still unfilled as staffing levels remain inadequate across much of the local hospitality sector, future events are being planned.
Donny Jones, the chief operating officer of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama and executive director of West Alabama Works, said in-person hiring events at Shelton State Community College and Stillman College are being set up for the near future to lure college students interested in part-time jobs with hospitality-based companies.
“The virtual hospitality hiring event was successful for some of our companies in the hospitality industry,” Jones said, “but with the tight labor market and lack of workforce participation, the need still exists, so our efforts will continue in support our companies.”
And while the “virtual job fair” has technically ended, West Alabama Works is still offering a portal to full or part-time jobs – both within and outside of the hospitality industry – via its website,
“We invite job seekers to apply for these and hundreds of other open positions in our community,” Jones said.
Nationally, hotels are expected to end 2021 down nearly 500,000 jobs compared to 2019, according to the latest report from the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
But the effect of lost hotel jobs extends beyond just housekeeping and front desks.
The association’s report said that, for every 10 people directly employed on a hotel property, hotels support an additional 26 jobs in the community, from restaurants and retail to hotel supply companies.
“While some industries have started rebounding from the pandemic, this report is a sobering reminder that hotels and hotel employees are still struggling,” said Chip Rogers, president and CEO of American Hotel & Lodging Association, in a Sept. 15 news release announcing the report.
Similarly, Tuscaloosa area bars and dining establishments are facing struggles alongside those across the country.
According to the National Restaurant Association’s mid-year report, eating and drinking places are still nearly 1 million jobs, or 8%, below pre-pandemic employment levels. Those figures mean that the restaurants and accommodations sector has one of the highest levels of unfilled job openings of any industry, despite steady job growth during the first six months of the year.
“Faced with one of the most devastating and disruptive events of our lifetime, the restaurant industry has taken significant strides toward rebuilding over the first half of 2021,” said Tom Bené, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, in an August news release announcing the mid-year report.
In Tuscaloosa, restaurateur  and business owner Craig Williams said staffing his local establishments – The Avenue Pub in Temerson Square and Central Mesa and The Wine Market, both on Greensboro Avenue – have fared better than some, thanks to the longevity of his businesses.
But near-daily challenges are still keeping his industry from reaching pre-pandemic levels of operations.
“What people don’t see are the staffing woes and the supply chain issues,” Williams said. “There are consistent supply chain disruptions and it just continues to be curve balls thrown at us, but we’re working to overcome them daily.”
The mid-year report from the National Restaurant Association shows that this is happening across the country.
Of those surveyed, 75% of restaurant operators reported that recruiting employees was their top challenge through June – the highest level ever recorded.
The full-service restaurant segment was hardest hit, down 626,000 jobs, or 11% below pre-pandemic employment levels. The limited-service segment fared a bit better, being down 175,000 jobs, or 4%, in the same period.
But restaurant operators also continue to grapple with higher input costs, with wholesale food prices increasing at their fastest rate in seven years thanks to supply inconsistencies, resulting in menu prices increasing nearly 4% through June.
However, Williams refuses to ask his customers to forgive these challenges.
Rather, he’s intent on providing services as good as possible, no matter what logistical obstacles may befall his industry.
“We’re definitely rolling with the punches of post-COVID situations, but we’re working our best to provide the best experience we can,” Williams said. “The mindset we try to have is just gratefulness.
“We all are grateful for customers who come in the door and we’re just happy we’ve got our doors open, people are back involving us as part of their daily operations and we can continue to bring some value to downtown Tuscaloosa.”
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