With the official start of summer—and high vacation and tourism season—it’s easy to sense the bustle that it brings to the Commonwealth. As of June 19, though, we can also quantify that bustle, and its year-round impact. That was the day that the Boston Foundation released a major report from the UMass Donahue Institute titled The Work of Leisure: Behind the Scenes of the Massachusetts Leisure, Hospitality and Tourism Industry. It’s the first report on this powerhouse sector in close to 30 years.
Researchers dug deep into stats from the U.S. Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development and other sources, and conducted surveys and interviews with employers in the field, all of which quantified some hunches and revealed some concerning issues. Among the key findings, presented at a forum at the Boston Foundation by lead author Mark Melnik, were these:
- The significance of Leisure, Hospitality and Tourism (LHT) in the state’s economic portfolio is grossly overlooked.
- The LHT workforce is among the most vulnerable and transient of any industry in the state.
- Despite being a “low skill” industry, there are numerous challenges in maintaining a well-skilled labor force.
More than one in 10 workers in the state are employed in LHT, which spans everything from coffee shops to casinos to mini-golf courses and the MFA—and more! With the weight of that industry in Food & Beverage and Accommodation subsectors, LHT yields about $69.4 billion in direct and spin-off economic activity for Massachusetts and employs upwards of 376,000 workers. These workers, however, tend to be young, of limited educational attainment (though a high proportion are also attending school), and Latino or foreign born. Many of them could also be categorized as the working poor. Some of these factors, combined with the high cost of living and transportation difficulties in the state, make it hard for employers to find and keep the workers they need.
This was the background to a lively discussion by a panel of experts on different angles of the LHT industry in the Commonwealth moderated by Boston Foundation Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs Keith Mahoney. Panelists included Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll; the Massachusetts Gaming Commission’s Director of Workforce, Supplier and Diversity Development Jill Griffin; UNITE HERE Local 26 President Brian Lang; and Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce/Convention & Visitors Bureau Wendy Northcross.
None expressed surprise at the findings but all were grateful that the report is drawing attention to the LHT sector and that it reinforces its identity as a job-producing engine. Workforce development was a key concern during the discussion. For the union chief it was to ensure workers had access to programs that would lead them to livable wages in their field; for the chamber of commerce head it was to make sure the pipeline of suitable workers keeps flowing.
The rising casino industry requires licensees to provide a workforce development plan for the Commission’s approval that demonstrates recruitment, training and career ladders, said Mass Gaming Commission’s Griffin. And for Salem, the third most visited site in the state, where “history is the stock in trade,” Mayor Driscoll referred to new programs providing pathways for Salem youth to see a career for themselves in the industry there. This kind of overlap should augur well for progress on this front, especially as the players are armed with data from the new report.
The industry is lucky to have these four influential leaders, as each takes an extremely positive approach to the challenges that face them. Lang shared inspiring examples of workers who entered hotel work at the lowest level and through union-supported training and other benefits were able to continue or advance in their field and have family-sustaining jobs.
Cape Cod Chamber’s Northcross brings humor and energy to the ongoing challenge of the high demand and low number of workers in her region made sharper by immigration policy and an aging population. The only thing the report couldn’t capture, she pointed out, was what an “amazing” industry this is. “I love seeing it quantified and rationalized as a ‘real’ industry. It’s extremely resilient, and in every corner of the Commonwealth, but there’s a whole qualitative portion that’s hard to capture: It has the power to transform your day.”