Feature Article - August 2022
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Team Up!

Navigating Staffing Challenges

By Dave Ramont


Where have all the workers gone? When you drive through town or visit the store, it sure seems like there are still the same amount of people around. And yet, many businesses are dealing with serious staffing challenges, whether it be seasonal, part-time or full-time help. Of course, the lion's share of these employee shortages have taken place since the pandemic hit, in what many have referred to as The Great Resignation. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce article published this past spring reported that in 2021, more than 47 million workers quit their jobs, many of whom were "in search of an improved work-life balance and flexibility, increased compensation and a strong company culture."

The recreation, sports and fitness sectors are certainly experiencing their own staffing challenges. IAAPA is the global association for the attractions industry, and Michael Shelton is vice president and executive director at IAAPA North America. He explained that while they saw staffing concerns become a larger issue during the pandemic, they actually saw the beginning of those concerns in 2019. "As we all know, employees around the world discovered that priorities shifted, and some have chosen to find work in other fields. Others, however, weren't able to go back to regular work for a variety of reasons, including possible health concerns, lack of childcare options and more."

Shelton said their members are experiencing a combination of staffing concerns. "Our seasonal staffing struggles not only stemmed from regular would-be employees choosing not to go back to work at places like attractions and destinations, but also ongoing issues with federal work visas." He described how IAAPA actively works to mitigate ongoing workforce concerns, including advocating for expanding the J-1 Summer Work Travel Program (SWT) and H-2B visas. J-1 provides foreign students with an opportunity to live and work in the U.S. during their summer vacation from college. "Currently, the SWT program is capped at 109,000 participants, but we've advocated to expand that. Even with the lingering impacts of COVID on the program, participation rates are up 65% when compared to 2020."

Since the beginning of the pandemic, IAAPA increased their virtual education programs to ensure that they were still supporting and reaching members, according to Shelton. "We focused on a combination of professional development options, but also offered courses in employee retention and HR matters." He shared some examples of webinar titles including "How to Increase Output for Increased Wages"; "Key Strategies for Opening a Facility That Thrives"; and "Waterparks: How to Hire and Keep Your Lifeguards This Season." "Later this year, we'll offer education sessions on talent acquisition during today's hiring struggles and one called 'The How you Doin' Panel: Taking Care of Ourselves, Our Teams, and Overcoming Staffing Challenges.'"

Earlier this year, IAAPA oversaw a gathering titled "Staffing Hot Topics," led by amusement park executives. One operator spoke about a program their park initiated called "10-Day Work and Play," aimed at finding people to work at the park during the 10 most difficult days of the year, targeting those available on weekdays, like the elderly. In addition to normal wages, they were offered four season passes. Last year the program was a success, even attracting a retired surgeon who'd always dreamed of working at an amusement park. Some other strategies park managers shared included targeting parents and convincing them to get their kids to apply; leaving business cards with contact information at restaurants or businesses if someone had provided exceptional service; getting current employees to help recruit new workers by offering them cash bonuses for referrals; giving out awards to employees at season's end to entice them to return; and offering training at off hours when more potential employees could attend.

Parks & Rec

Municipalities and parks departments certainly haven't been immune to staffing challenges, often resulting in reduction of hours or services. Amanda Hutcheson is the director of Parks and Recreation in Broadview Heights, Ohio, and she said that while the struggles continue, it has improved over a year ago. "We did a big push on social media to get people in for interviews."

And while they've had to reduce hours in their natatorium, they have found some successful ways to entice young people to become-or stay-lifeguards. "Shorter shifts for the teenage guards and the ability to be home by 8:30 on school days has helped retain more guards and keep parents happy. We also let the guards have a voice in what makes them happy and keeps them there. Choosing the lifeguard attire and food at in-service was a big request. Plus we've offered the lifeguard course and Water Safety Instructor course for free and pay for their vests if they pass."

Any other ways to attract and retain park employees? "Wages, wages, wages," said Hutcheson. "In the fall of 2021 we were given the go-ahead to increase the pay for guards and water safety instructors, as well as custodial and resident service attendants. The mayor, city council and HR fully supported the raise in pay rates to get quality staff and have rates that are matching or above surrounding communities. We also now offer any part-time staff member that has worked for us for six months and a minimum of 16 hours a week four paid holidays, PTO time and a free rec membership."