Hotels Face Crunch in Attracting, Retaining Staff

I want to go to America,” said Shailesh Sailu, 23, pausing between serving tea to hoteliers, financiers, and developers in the outdoor smoking lounge at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai.

Sailu only joined the Grand Hyatt as a trainee in March, but he is already feeling the itch to move up. His angst is spurred by friends who have passed him by in the hospitality trade or have gone on to pursue other careers. He described one former colleague at the Regent Hotel—now the Taj Lands End-Mumbai—who left the hotel work to go back to school. Sailu’s friend now makes Rs40,000 a month in the animation industry.

Hoteliers are increasingly conscious of the difficulty of attracting, training, and retaining employees like the ambitious Sailu and his former coworker. Human resources have become a critical issue for the hospitality industry as trained professionals bounce from one hotel to another.

“Every year I lose 35-40 people” out of a total staff of about 140 people, said Varinder Sahni, director of operations of Ashok Country Resorts in Delhi. “It’s happening with every hotel, not just us,” he added. “When the Radisson opened up, we lost about 60 people.”

Beyond poaching each other’s employees, hotels also face the problem of keeping employees from taking the opportunities available in other sectors such as retail and BPOs

“Years ago, you would compete with other hotel companies for staff, but now we find we’re competing with tons of other industries,” said Thomas Monahan, senior vice-president, Acquisitions and Development, for Starwood’s Asia Pacific unit.

He added that he’s up against everyone from BPOs to investment banks for entry level and middle management positions in Starwood’s hotels. Starwood owns the Sheraton and Westin brands, among others, and is looking to expand in India.

The addition of hotels itself is a major factor in the increased need for employees by the hospitality industry.

According to a 2006 report from hospitality consultancy HVS International, about 53,000 rooms are expected to enter the market in 10 major Indian hospitality markets by 2011. HVS’s report said that without accounting for employee loss to other industries, manpower needs for hotels will more than triple in those cities’ hospitality sectors from about 45,000 workers in fiscal 2006 to about 138,000 by fiscal 2012. In the most glaring instance, HVS’s report expects the hotel sector’s human resources needs in Pune to increase 900% in the same time frame.

Hoteliers are taking a variety of steps to address the shortfall of skilled employees. The Taj Group’s senior vice-president of human resources Yogi Sriram said that his company sends “role model” general managers to hotel management schools to describe a “day in the life.” The goal is to present possible hotel employees with a positive sense of what life in the industry is like.

For retention purposes, Sriram said the Taj Group has an “emerging leader programme” to identify employees with high potential and provide them with more space to flex their management impulses by managing particular projects.

Starwood’s Monahan said his company has a similar programme to “recognize” employees with a high ceiling and give them a career path. He also talked about his own experience as a young Starwood employee who was allowed to travel the world by working in different Starwood hotels. Monahan thinks such a strategy could help retain staff. “We’d be able to offer young executives a career path not just in India, but with 850 hotels, a chance to go overseas,” he said.

However, even with programmes in place to retain employees, hotel industry professionals like Sriram still feel there’s much work to be done by the industry to keep potential and current hotel employees from jumping ship to another industry. Sriram said he wants hotels to stop competing with each other as much for staff and come together to attract employees, to allow more space for creativity, put more funding into hotel management schools.

He also wants to find more places to draw staff from.

“Maybe retail, maybe BPOs, maybe IT. If they can take our frontline staff, why can’t we look at those industries?” he asked. Sriram said hotels should also consider dipping into underused segments of India’s labour pool like the physically challenged, looking at graduates of schools outside of hotel management, like home sciences, and attract more employees from overseas through the Internet.

With India’s GDP growing at over 8% annually, hoteliers are searching for answers to the increasing competition for labour within the industry and the service sector more generally. If they don’t come up with the right ones, they may increasingly lose young men and women.

Judy A. Siguaw, dean of Singapore-based Cornell-Nanyang Institute of Hospitality Management, said the hotel industry complains of losing well-trained staff to other industries, but it will be up to it to give salaries that retain the workers and make them the “employer of choice.” She said she sees numerous students going from her school into the finance and consulting side, because the hotel industry is hard work for less pay.

Sailu said that in several years or work as a caterer and then a hotel employee, he has never seen a hotel as “luxurious” as the Grand Hyatt, a quality he admires about his workplace. He added that he is getting paid more than he would at other hotels. Sailu makes Rs4,500 a month. But, given the opportunity for a better life, he said he would gladly take it.

Rana Rosen contributed to this story.