SHERIDAN — By Labor Day and the official end of the summer tourism season, the Best Western Sheridan Center may be fully staffed.
That day has been a long time coming, according to General Manager Karen Schumacher. The hotel has experienced a staff shortage extending through two tourism seasons, which often required salaried and management staff to help out in unfilled positions.
As evidenced by signs at restaurants, hotels and bars all over Sheridan, the Best Western is not an isolated case, according to Sheridan County Travel and Tourism Director Shawn Parker. And Travel and Tourism’s best efforts to increase interest in hospitality industry jobs have yet to yield noticeable results.
“We have not seen the results we were hoping for,” Parker said of the campaign, which included a digital jobs board and numerous ad campaigns. “Virtually every hospitality business in town continues to have signs up advertising job openings. In 2019, a job posting at a hotel or for a restaurant might have received 10 to 20 replies. Today those same postings might not receive any interest at all. Of course, each restaurant, hotel, etc. is going through this differently, but in general we have seen that it is extremely difficult to hire at the moment.”
Both Parker and Schumacher said there wasn’t one definitive answer as to why hospitality businesses were having difficulties hiring. But what is clear is the problem is bigger than Sheridan, Parker said.
“I spent the last few days at a major industry conference, and what is clear is that this is a problem across the nation,” Parker said. “Political pundits point to federal aid and boosted unemployment benefits, but there are a number of factors contributing to the issue.”
Part of it comes down to volume, Parker said. With increased tourism, local hospitality businesses are hiring at a higher rate. Nationally, job postings on major hiring platforms have increased tenfold over the last year, according to ABC News. But at the same time, the pool of people interested in hospitality jobs has decreased, according to Parker.
“That pool is limited because many people who worked in the hospitality industry moved on to other fields during the pandemic — especially across the Mountain West region, where many other industries were not as severely impacted by shutdown orders and restrictions,” Parker said.
Even in the best of times, these jobs are strenuous and experience high turnover, Schumacher said. So even when employees are hired, they might not stick around long.
“We hire folks locally, but many of them last a week or two weeks, maybe a month or two,” Schumacher said. “The reasons vary by department, but, generally, this is harder work than a lot of people may be expecting.”
In addition, wages in the hospitality industry have stayed fairly steady over the years while the cost of living in Sheridan has increased substantially, Parker said. According to Parker, Sheridan County’s home prices alone have increased 20% over the last five years, with wages not seeing the same dramatic increase over time.
These factors have forced hospitality businesses like Best Western to rethink how they hire, according to Schumacher. The hotel has raised its salaries and instituted a bonus program. Schumacher said the former has likely contributed to some recent hires, while the latter hasn’t worked as well as she would have liked.
“Under the program, they receive a certain amount if they stick around for an entire season,” Schumacher said. “We’re wondering if it needs to be something more immediate, like a sign-on bonus, but if you do that, there is no guarantee they are going to stick around.”
Black Tooth Brewing Company, unlike many hospitality businesses, has had steady employment throughout this tourism season, according to owner and founder Tim Barnes. While people have come and gone, employment has stayed steady because the brewery provides work people want to do in a place they want to work, Barnes said.
“We haven’t seen a shortage to be honest, and I would attribute some of that to people who have been with the company in the past who have returned,” Barnes said. “There are people who want to return to Sheridan and return to this particular industry. You just have to find them.”
Just as there is no one reason for the hospitality staffing shortage, there is no single solution either, Parker said. But one thing is clear: Business as usual is no longer an option.
“(It is) difficult for employers to hire the way they used to, but we are seeing movement on the wages front in the hospitality industry, with employers offering higher starting pay, as well as sign-on bonuses and other perks,” Parker said. “We are going to have to be creative in how we advertise and promote hospitality industry employment. I think it would be a stretch to think that we will see a return to 100-percent normal anytime soon.”