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Maine hotel and restaurant operators say it has been a constant struggle to find enough staff, a problem made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The seasonal ebb and flow of the Maine hospitality industry’s workforce needs adds another layer of complexity to its hiring challenges in the post-pandemic era of labor shortages.
Inability to staff up for the summer can be especially devastating to seasonal businesses that only have from late May to early October each year to earn the bulk of their revenue. But whether a business in the sector operates seasonally or year-round, the influx of summer tourists necessarily requires it to add workers or throw away financial opportunities.
Worker interest in hospitality may have waned recently, but tourism demand remains strong in what is historically one of the hottest summer destinations for regional travelers. In 2022, the number of tourists visiting Maine decreased slightly from the previous year, but longer average stays still led to record tourism spending of $8.6 billion.
Maine hotel and restaurant operators say it has been a constant struggle to find enough workers. Federal visa programs to attract seasonal staff from abroad are only meeting about half the demand, according to Becky Jacobson, interim executive director of HospitalityMaine.
“The need for workers far exceeds the number of visas issued by the federal government,” Jacobson says. “Historically, Maine has needed about 5,500 to 6,000 visas and usually only receives half of that.”
HospitalityMaine anticipates there will be another shortage this year, but it is looking to the federal government to see what upcoming changes may happen. The government awarded additional visas in 2022, Jacobson says, but they came late, and many Maine businesses didn’t receive the requested amount.
As a result, Maine’s hospitality industry is looking to a wide variety of other sources to find workers beyond the traditional avenues such as the federal J-1 and H-2B visa programs, online job boards, newspaper ads and other online sources.
“Many properties are reaching out to other pipelines: kids coming right out of high school and community colleges, New Mainers, [the] Department of Corrections … as well as other non-traditional sources,” Jacobson says.
HospitalityMaine also holds job fairs and events to introduce companies looking for employees to students currently enrolled in hospitality and culinary programs in the community and state colleges, she says.
In addition to seasonal workers, Maine innkeepers and restaurateurs need well-trained, permanent staff to market and manage their properties, design and plan events, provide guest services, run kitchens, maintain facilities and perform various other roles.
As chair of Southern Maine Community College’s hospitality management and culinary arts programs, Maureen LaSalle is a key figure on the career-building side of the region’s hospitality industry. She has over 20 years of experience in the industry and is now a full-time teacher and a tireless advocate for career-oriented training.
“If you go directly into the field, working at a restaurant or a hotel, they’re going to teach you one way of doing things,” LaSalle says. “When you come to our program, all of our faculty come from out of the industry, and so each one of us has had our own career path prior to becoming a teacher, and we can share that so you get a multitude of perspectives about the industry.”
There are four full-time faculty members between the two SMCC programs, supplemented by adjuncts who either have worked in the industry or still do. Classes also include organized site visits to some of Maine’s most celebrated hotels and restaurants, allowing students to learn directly from the people who run those establishments.
On a recent Tuesday in April, one of LaSalle’s classes visited Inn by the Sea, a luxury seaside resort with 62 rooms that sits on 5 acres overlooking Crescent Beach in Cape Elizabeth.
The inn is known for its commitment to sustainability and environmental conservation. It has eliminated single-use plastic products from the property and applied two years ago to connect to a nearby solar farm for all its electricity. (It’s still waiting in a queue with other businesses for the needed utility connections.)
In 2020, the inn was recognized as one of the “Best Hotels in Maine” by U.S. News & World Report, and it also has been named a “Green Leader” by TripAdvisor for its commitment to sustainability. Its award-winning Sea Glass restaurant serves fresh local seafood and farm-to-table cuisine.
The class tour was led by Rauni Kew, PR and green program manager at Inn by the Sea. Kew talked to the students about how the inn involves guests in its sustainability efforts and encourages them to participate in environmentally conscious practices during their stay.
LaSalle says graduates of the two-year SMCC programs go on to work at hotels, restaurants, events centers, campgrounds, wedding planners and cruise ships, among others. She says businesses seek out her graduates for their management, leadership and people skills.
“I know it’s cheesy to say, but in hospitality and culinary, the world is your oyster,” LaSalle says. “Everybody wants you.”
Inn by the Sea General Manager Michael Briggs says the resort is open all year and requires about 75 full- and part-time employees to operate normally.
“By the time we hit May 1 through June 30, we’ll onboard an additional 40 to 50 seasonal staff members, which is a pretty big lift in a short period of time,” he says.
The inn has had to get creative about how it fills needed positions, says Briggs. It utilizes foreign student and worker visas, as well as bringing in high school students from the local area. The inn also cross-trains existing staff into high-demand roles.
“It’s a multifaceted approach to get to the endgame of being fully staffed … for the heart of Maine’s tourism season,” Briggs says.
In Old Orchard Beach, Tammy Ahearn was preparing to open the seaside inn she owns with her son, formerly known as The Normandie, which reopened in 2018 as Abellona Inn & Suites on the Shore. Abellona is a seasonal business that is usually open from April to October each year.
Abellona has 64 rooms in 20 different sizes and configurations that include traditional motel rooms, jacuzzi rooms, kitchenette rooms and sprawling suites.
The inn is situated on the quieter side of the area’s seven-mile stretch of sandy beach, about a mile from downtown Old Orchard Beach with its bustling pier, shops, restaurants, bars, arcade and amusement park.
“The demand is huge, but we can’t get anybody [local] to work,” she says. “We have to hire kids from overseas, so all of our employees right now, except for our key year-round people, are students from Turkey and Mongolia.”
Ahearn says Maine’s hospitality industry is thriving and growing because it provides the types of experience people want. She sees it as an industry filled with great opportunities for anyone who chooses to enter the field — “but you need to be a people person.”
“They’ve got to be able to handle all kinds of personalities and all kinds of situations while staying calm and collected,” Ahearn says.
Maine restaurant owners such as Jim Albert face similar challenges when recruiting staff for their businesses, either for the busy summers or to open new locations.
Albert owns Jimmy the Greek’s in Old Orchard Beach and three gourmet burger joints called Cowbell in Biddeford, Scarborough and Westbrook, as well as two neighborhood bars.
Like other hospitality and culinary business owners, he has been relying heavily on foreign students to staff up for the summer. Albert notes that the labor shortage was even worse a couple years ago than it is now.
“The whole country is in a crisis with the lack of people working,” he says. “Where are our kids and why aren’t they getting into the workforce in bigger numbers?”
Alexis Levesque plans to graduate this spring from Southern Maine Community College’s hospitality management program.
Levesque had been through its culinary program and decided to continue with hospitality, in part because tuition is free for all Maine high school graduates of 2020 through at least this year due to a $20 million allocation from the state’s general fund.
Levesque says her upbeat, outgoing personality is a good fit for the industry. Employers want people who consistently interact with customers in a kind and professional manner. She originally wanted to open a restaurant but is now considering hotel property management as a career.
“I really like the philosophy that goes along with properties like the Nonantum," she says, referring to the Kennebunkport resort. “They have a really big community development project — I’m so interested in community development and just being there for everyone who’s in your community.”
Grisel Reed, a first-year student in the SMCC program, says she has always been drawn to the tourism industry, especially hospitality. Reed hopes to pursue a career in event design, which refers to the creative and aesthetic aspects of an event such as visual design, theme and decor.
Her advice to students considering a career in hospitality is to make sure they have the skills and temperament to remain calm in stressful situations.
“You should be organized, capable of multitasking, and open to change, because I do feel that with hospitality, things can change every day,” Reed says.