Demand for Wilmington-area restaurant and hotel workers is rising and the supply is starting to struggle to keep up.
As new hotels open and the number of local restaurants continue to grow – currently there are 541 Trip Advisor-reviewed restaurants alone in Wilmington – some establishments are finding themselves concerned about being short-staffed.
“Through conversations with local hoteliers, the CVB has become aware that a shortage of hospitality workers is a topic of interest,” noted Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau spokeswoman Connie Nelson. While the issue isn’t as stark as it is in nearby Wake County – where a job fair was recently held to fill 3,500 related positions – it is becoming a conversation.
Downtown Wilmington gained three hotels in as many years: Courtyard by Marriott Wilmington Downtown-Historic District, Hampton Inn Wilmington Downtown and Embassy Suites by Hilton Wilmington Riverfront at the Wilmington Convention Center. Meanwhile, Carolina Beach gained a Hampton Inn & Suites in 2016.
As the local hospitality and tourism industry continues to thrive, more hotels are on the horizon, with an Aloft to be built downtown and another hotel to be built in Ogden among the plans.
As New Hanover County’s prime travel season nears, some establishments are meeting any potential staffing shortages head-on. Among them is Wrightsville Beach’s independently operated Blockade Runner Beach Resort.
The oceanfront property, 275 Waynick Blvd., held a job fair in April to fill positions from front desk agents to housekeepers.
The number of hotels in the area “leave us all vying for some similar employees….,” explained Blockade Runner Beach Resort General Manager Nicolas Montoya. “Our job fair proved to be successful on a couple of different fronts; the folks that came were all-around a more selective group of applicants with a focused desire to work in our industry.”
Montoya, who is also chairman of the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority Board of Directors, said the industry’s growth is producing more positives than negatives. The former includes driving local tourism revenue and also careers, in an area that often loses skilled workers because of a lack of professional opportunities.
“As the number of properties continues to grow and we continue to develop our destination to attract different types of travelers – especially in the corporate and convention markets while maintaining our leisure market – the growth of hospitality career prospects will and should increase,” he said.
Cape Fear Jobs President Corey Lewis said that while the hospitality industry is one of the Cape Fear region’s top job sectors, its turnover rate tends to be high.
“Bars, hotels, golf courses, restaurants and resorts alike all compete for the same workforce, and the competition is tough – workers will tell you that it’s management and salaries that will push them to move from one job to another,” said Lewis. “Also in play is the growing industry itself; the micro-brewery craze is exploding, hotels are popping up on the river and midtown every other month and bars and restaurants are continuing to rise – so is it the shortage of workers or too many jobs?”
The latter presents an opportunity, said Lewis, for a company to create a specialized training program to more fully develop local workers in the industry. Montoya noted a similar prospect, specifically one that cultivates entry-level positions.
“We have a great opportunity right now if we come together to construct a career path fostered from the middle and high school levels, to the vocational trades at Cape Fear Community College and through the higher education program of Travel and Tourism at [the University of North Carolina at Wilmington] as it relates to generating, growing jobs and building careers in the hospitality industry,” said Montoya. “This is a challenge that the industry has to take head on and bring [New Hanover County Schools], CFCC and UNCW to the fold to outline and support the development of that path.”
To that end, the Blockade Runner Beach Resort participated in a statewide program, Students@Work, earlier this year with New Hanover County Schools. Middle school students were joined by Gov. Roy Cooper during the resort visit, where they learned about prospective hospitality careers.
Launched in 2011, The Students@ Work program is a partnership between the N.C. Business Committee for Education and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Montoya said the Blockade Runner Beach Resort has hosted the annual educational event multiple times.
Meanwhile, one organization that is already working to help hospitality businesses find workers is the N.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association. Officials there noted that the industry labor shortage is statewide.
Low unemployment rates mean fewer workers are available, said Lynn Minges, NCRLA president and CEO. “And that’s true not just for the hospitality industry but for colleagues in other business sectors that we’re talking with across the state,” she said.