Sunday, July 3, 2022

Florida’s Roaring Economy Still Facing Lingering Labor Shortages

Despite Florida outperforming the national economy by leaps in and bounds, the state’s largest industry continues to face labor shortages. Tourism is by far the largest contributor to the state’s economy, bringing in over $100 billion annually through hospitality and leisure businesses such as hotels and restaurants, but the industry is now struggling to meet demand as more and more people come to visit (or stay) in Florida.

“The general consensus is that we’re not as bad as we were a year ago, there are more positions filled, but we’re still short across the tri-county area about 15 or 20 thousand jobs,” says FAU Clinical Associate Professor & Director of Hospitality Management Programs Peter Ricci.

Florida’s was fortunate relative to other states with regards to the economic impact of COVID. The state’s economy is recovering at a far faster rate and Florida’s unemployment rate of three percent is more than a half percent lower than the national average of 3.6 percent. So why, if Florida’s workforce is so robust, is its largest industry still facing staff shortages? Ricci attributes this shift from the hospitality business to the transferability of skills honed in the industry.

“Those of us who have worked in the business for a long time have prided ourselves in training people for service and interpersonal and human relations skills,” says Ricci, “What we saw during the pandemic was the realization that people could use those skills outside of hospitality and find jobs that offer remote work, sometimes better pay and sometimes better benefits.”

Benefits are a rare luxury in the hospitality industry. Larger companies like Big Time Restaurant Group, owner of upscale dining concepts like Elisabetta’s and Louie Bossi’s are able to provide 401k plans, paid vacation and higher wages to staff. But smaller, mom and pop style restaurants are finding it difficult to stay competitive.

“We never had to close certain days of the week or stop serving lunch. Some restaurants had to do that this season and I felt bad for them,” says Todd Herbst, Founder of Big Time Restaurant Group. “As difficult as it was to staff during the [busy] season, it never got to that point.”

Herbst has been in the industry for more than 30 years, and has never seen labor shortages like the ones faced during COVID and the 2021 winter season. Other smaller restaurant companies were forced to adapt to shortages using technology, like the family-owned Urban Belly Restaurant Group, which introduced robot waiters into three of their restaurant concepts.

“About six months ago, it was just crazy,” says Art Piyavichayanont, owner of Urban Belly Restaurant Group. They brought in robot waiters to assist their limited staff with tasks such as busing tables and bringing food to customers. With more than 10 restaurants including four Lemongrass Bristro locations, The Sea and Ganzo in Delray and Eat District in Boca, Urban Belly’s workforce was stretched far too thin, to the point that some of their restaurants would have to close on certain days and adjust their hours on others.

BellaBot, the robot waiter.

Urban Belly still employs robot waiters to assist their staff. “We still have them because it’s been helpful,” says Piyavichayanont. “Our industry is just more labor intensive, so [we will] do anything we can do to help existing staff to make their work a little bit better, more comfortable.”

Peter Ricci notes that after any crisis, there is always a push to try and be more efficient, and a post-COVID automated staff is no exception.

“Technology is trying its best to fill in voids where we can do without a full-time equivalent worker. It works in some cases, it doesn’t work in others,” says Ricci. “Hospitality is such a human-to-human type business, it’ll never take away all of our positions.”

While many restaurants have began to catch up to their pre-pandemic levels of employment, there has been a drastic increase in employee turnover, creating a constant need for new hires. But with wages in the industry increasing by up to 27 percent since the start of COVID, Ricci argues that having some empty positions isn’t a bad thing.

“The first downturn that we have in demand, the [business] owners are probably going to be more likely to lay back or cut back hours because labor is costing them so much more than ever before,” says Ricci. But if there are fewer positions filled, there is less chance of employees being cut.

Ricci says that there are many initiatives being taken to draw people into Florida’s hospitality business through the Department of Education and many private and public organizations. Ricci believes that the field is rewarding, and that appealing to younger people to join should be a priority.

“I’m hoping the combination of better a PR message, more certificates in vocational training, and awareness in high schools over the next five years will get people back into the business at the levels we need,” says Ricci.

But it isn’t just a lack of appeal that the hospitality industry is facing; it’s people’s changing philosophies towards work post-pandemic.

“[COVID] just caused people to reflect on everything in life and a lot of people realized ‘Hey, I don’t want to put all those hours in at work. I’d rather do something remote, I’d like to be more in control of my own destiny’,” says Ricci.

While the hospitality industry will have a chance to regroup and staff up during the slower summer months, the winter season will be the ultimate determinant on whether these efforts prevail.

Tyler Childress
Tyler is the Web Editor and a contributing writer for Boca Raton magazine. He is an FAU summa cum laude graduate in Multimedia Studies who enjoys covering tech, education, housing and any other issues affecting South Florida.

Related Articles

Latest Articles