The sharp decline in hospitality and tourism employment during COVID highlights the need for new approaches to workforce development

Vanessa Wong

Author headshotSector shocks such as the impact of COVID-19 on the hospitality industry are nothing new and will continue to happen in the future. They can affect employment opportunities for jobseekers and the ability of employers to retain experienced workers as the industry navigates the novel impact of a shock. Within this context, workforce intermediaries like the Hospitality Workers Training Centre (HWTC) will have to change how we look at workforce development strategies that aim to support workers and help employers manage and recover from sector shocks.

What is a sector shock?

A sector shock occurs when there is a change that affects the amount of goods produced and/or services provided by the sector. The impact can be positive or negative and the sector shock can result from events such as natural disasters, technological change, pandemics and/or politics. It can also displace a significant number of workers (Keane, 1991 & Chehal, Lougani, & Trehan, 2010), affect the types of jobs available and change the skillset required of workers. Displaced workers may also remain unemployed longer because of the time it takes to find work in other industries where their skills are transferable (Keane, 1991; Chehal, Lougani, & Trehan, 2010).

The sharp decline in the hospitality and tourism industry as a result of COVID-19 is an example of a sectoral shock. Employment data from May 2020 shows that employment in hospitality and tourism decreased by 43.3%, with an overall unemployment rate of 28.8%. The pandemic has also accelerated the impact of technology and automation in the hospitality industry, changing job roles and work environments. It has also highlighted the importance of soft skills such as initiative, adaptability, communication and customer service in workers and employers to navigate uncertainty and support recovery (Boudreau, Rose, & Landine, 2021).

What is a workforce intermediary?

A workforce intermediary is an organization that brings together key stakeholders across a local labour market – such as industry representatives, employers and workers – to improve workforce conditions, supply and skills. The work of the workforce intermediary is to plan, develop and implement strategic approaches that would meet local employers’ recruitment and retention needs, while also elevating local jobseekers’ employment and skills development opportunities. – Urban Institute, 2021

As the industry begins its slow road to recovery, employers have also expressed challenges in retaining experienced workers and hiring qualified workers because of employment instability within the sector and higher wages and better career prospects in other industries. Full recovery from this devastating shock is not expected (by the most optimistic projections) until 2023.

What is an employer-engaged workforce development strategy?

Employer-engaged workforce development strategies are an example of how workforce development intermediaries can support workers and employers to navigate sector shocks. Currently, programs implemented by workforce intermediaries are focused on helping jobseekers access training, certification and job search supports for specific positions, and connecting them to employer partners who will hire them. During a sector shock, this strategy is less effective as employment opportunities may be shifting or the skillsets required for those jobs change as business owners adapt their operational model to ensure viability in shifting markets.

Employers representing small- to medium-sized businesses have also said that they struggle to access the support of workforce intermediaries because the services they provide do not necessarily meet their just-in-time recruitment needs (Boudreau, Rose, & Landine, 2021). Businesses report that they would like workforce intermediaries to collaborate with them and play a bigger role in connecting them to training programs and tools that represent the best solutions to their workforce needs (Boudreau, Rose, & Landine, 2021).

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An employer-engaged workforce development strategy offers a more transformational approach that addresses the concerns expressed by employer partners while meeting the employment stability needs of jobseekers. This is especially helpful in industries that are experiencing sector shocks and have concerns about unwanted employee turnover rates. Those strategies focus on the development of meaningful relationships with employers as key labour market stakeholders. When employers are invested and involved in the collaboration, workforce intermediaries are better able to understand and identify their current and future employment needs and work with them to co-create and deliver relevant responses to address them. Employer-engaged workforce strategies look at opportunities for jobseekers to access employment while supporting nimble and responsive processes for employers, workers and workforce intermediaries to work together.

Examples of employer-engaged workforce development strategies

Based on our experiences, best practices in the field and industry input, these are three examples of employer-engaged workforce development strategies we have found to be the most impactful. We recognize that sector shocks are not static and that all of these strategies and activities will evolve based on changes in industry and the needs of employers, employees and jobseekers.

“An employer-engaged workforce development strategy offers a more transformational approach that addresses the concerns expressed by employer partners while meeting the employment stability needs of jobseekers.”

Leverage live labour market information to support demand-driven labour market attachment strategies: Access to accurate, timely and relevant labour market information is critical to understanding changes and trends in the labour market. HWTC has leveraged technologies such as SkillsPath Ontario, FutureFit AI, Vicinity Jobs and Burning Glass Technologies to provide real-time data about job vacancies and in-demand skills. This approach provides current insights into what employers are looking for when hiring. This information enables us to better support workers navigating challenging career transitions to explore training opportunities and make informed decisions about their job search – right in line with the most current employer demands.

Engage employers with customized tools to support recruitment and retention: The loss of employees is one of the greatest challenges for employers and this is exacerbated by job uncertainty as a result of a sector shock. Many employers will be required to recruit, on-board and train new hires to support re-opening, as their pre-COVID workforce many not be available or willing to return. Retaining workers will be critical to the speed at which a business will recover and regain profitability.

Pre-COVID research showed that retention issues were ascribed to a deficit of workers’ soft skills (Boudreau, Rose, & Landine, 2021). HWTC’s Retention Skills Enhancement Tool (ReSET) is an online platform that enables employers to articulate and share soft skills performance expectations with their employees and objectively measure soft skills performance. With ReSET, employers can develop targeted training interventions to support soft skill development and improve performance and retention of their top talent. ReSET assumes that skills development does not stop at hiring, and employers and employees need to work together to develop strategies for an engaged, highly skilled and resilient workforce.

Alternative credential recognition: As jobs are reallocated and changed as result of a sector shock, attracting skilled workers becomes more competitive for employers. Tools to assess skills when recruiting and hiring employees will need to evolve. Micro-credentials in the form of e-badges offer a quick and reliable indicator of competency for employers to identify and screen for in-demand skills. Micro-credentials also provide an accessible training opportunity for individuals who have low levels of literacy and/or face system barriers to accessing traditional academic learning opportunities. HWTC in partnership with Bow Valley College and industry partners is developing a hospitality-specific series of micro-credentials aimed at supporting employers to recruit for the skills they need.

A strong foundation

Sector shocks will occur again in the future. These will affect the number of employment opportunities available and the skillsets required for jobs as business owners adapt their operational models. With the implementation of relevant employer-engaged workforce development strategies, such as those mentioned above, workforce development intermediaries can support workers and help employers manage and recover from sector shocks.

Vanessa Wong has been successfully developing and implementing community-based literacy and employment programs for over 10 years. She is a lifelong learner who recently received her designation as a project management professional and is currently completing her second degree in social work.


Boudreau, A., Rose, H., & Landine, J. (2021). Soft skills in the post-pandemic hospitality and foodservice sector in Ontario – A report for the Hospitality Workers Training Centre. Hospitality Workers Training Centre.