Charleston’s hospitality leaders are rolling out new tools in their efforts to recruit more workers in a city largely built around tourism.
"We can’t stay America’s No. 1 destination if we don’t have employees to serve the guests," Laurie Lynn Smith, vice president of operations for Explore Charleston, the marketing label for the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, told restaurant and hotel managers Tuesday.
Hotels, restaurants and other hospitality businesses have been struggling to recruit workers in a tight labor market. About 70 employers set up tables at the College of Charleston’s TD Arena to make their pitches to students. Several hotels displayed lists of vacancies.
The job fair focused mainly on students who have already been preparing for hospitality careers, such as College of Charleston seniors Grace Finlay and Ashley Leggett, who are majoring in business and hospitality.
"I think it's really cool to have studied in Charleston, where the industry is really growing," said Finlay, who is from Annapolis, Md. "We're really overwhelmed by choices here."
They said they realize it's an industry where you often have to start at the bottom and prove you're a hard worker to advance, but that's fine as long as there's a clear path ahead.
"I think if you're doing it for the money, it's probably not the greatest industry to start out in," Finlay said.
Pay is a factor in recruiting workers. Hotels and restaurant jobs generally don't pay much to start but offer the promise of advancement. A new study will help area businesses at least be competitive with other cities.
The college’s Office of Tourism Analysis recently completed a wage study of 200 hospitality positions in 18 cities. For instance, Charleston is No. 8 in terms of pay for a hotel desk clerk, at $11.37 an hour for someone with a year’s experience.
The entire study was not available for public release, but CVB members can ask for figures on two or three positions they're checking, according to deputy director Perrin Lawson.
The Office of Tourism Analysis also surveyed hospitality businesses on benefits. According to the study, about 96 percent of Charleston-area hotels offer medical insurance to workers, while only 64 percent of restaurants do.
Parking continues to be a major challenge for those working on the peninsula, especially for restaurant employees. About 80 percent of hotels in the Charleston area provide workers with free parking, while only 44 percent of restaurants offer that benefit, according to the study.
A shuttle service for hospitality workers that offers bus service from a parking lot outside the county building on Morrison Drive was announced for January but now is scheduled to start service this spring.
The College of Charleston has a strong hospitality and tourism management program, and Trident Technical College runs the Culinary Institute of Charleston. But filling vacant positions will mean going beyond recruiting students, Smith told a joint meeting of the Charleston Area Hospitality Association and the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association before the jobs fair started.
She outlined several new initiatives by the CVB to find more workers.
Last fall, hotels and restaurants started holding job fairs in neighborhoods near them, which eliminates the problems of transportation and housing for workers. A job fair on the upper peninsula in October and in Mount Pleasant in December netted 10 new hospitality workers. Job fairs are planned this spring in North Charleston and West Ashley.
Hospitality businesses are also turning to non-profit and government agencies for help. Last year 51 veterans, disabled and homeless people were recruited from agencies such as Goodwill, Lutheran Services, the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center and One80Place.
"We’ve got to fish outside our pond," Smith said.
Hospitality businesses looking for workers can check a new pool of 600 resumes on a website that CVB members can access. Good Hire will do a background check for $9.75.