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Hotels Are Hiring as Americans Hit the Road

Hotels Are Hiring as Americans Hit the Road

Illustration by 731; Photograph by David Engelhardt/Getty Images (hotel)

Hotels are hiring. That simple statement is giving hope to many long-unemployed or underemployed Americans who see hotel jobs as a pathway back to full-time work—low-paying, long-hours work, but a job nonetheless.

Hotels and motels are getting busier as Americans feel a little more secure economically and are taking vacations. “With more people on the road, we’ll need more people working in hotels,” says Jan Freitag, a senior vice president at Smith Travel Research. He cites a 4.1 percent gain in first-quarter hotel bookings as a “very positive sign” that U.S. tourism is rebounding.

The Federal Reserve confirmed the shift in travel in its most recent survey of current economic conditions, with data collected on or before April 2 indicating “strong” trends in several districts. The St. Louis Fed—which oversees all of Arkansas and parts of Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois—reported that hotel service companies “announced plans to expand operations and hire new workers.” Business travel, essential to hotel revenue, has rebounded enough to restore hotel occupancy levels to 63.6 percent, close to the historic average.

About 7.6 million people, or 5.7 percent of the U.S. workforce, held tourism-related jobs in March, according to the U.S. Travel Association in Washington. The travel industry accounted for “a substantial component”—2.7 percent—of 2010 gross domestic product, according to a Jan. 19 statement from the White House. The number of Americans working at hotels, motels, and casino hotels rose 3.2 percent in March from the same month in 2010, to 1.6 million, outpacing a 2.7 percent increase for all employees, data from the Department of Labor show.

Marriott International (MAR), the largest publicly traded U.S. hotel chain, forecasts that its U.S. staff will rise 6 percent this year, to 212,000 from about 200,000 as of Dec. 31, says Laura Paugh, senior vice president of investor relations. Marriott operates hotels in all 50 states, and bookings nationwide have been “quite strong,” with growth driven by leisure, foreign, and business travelers. Marriott is “filling jobs when they become vacant,” a change from the recession that ended in June 2009, when the company was reducing hours, Paugh says. “Occupancy is high enough that most people are working a full shift again.” Marriott has plans to add as many as 15,000 rooms in the U.S. this year, which is “really meaningful” to generating more employment, says Paugh. “The hotel industry is a great job creator.”

After years as a caregiver, Angela Cook found work at a hotel in 2010, when the 43-year-old Los Angeles resident participated in a five-day training program to place jobless black workers in union hospitality positions. She needed a “boost of confidence” to jump-start her career; she was on welfare, and “looking for work was very discouraging.”

The program made Cook “more employable,” she says, and upon completion she was hired as a cocktail server at the Wilshire Grand Hotel. While she was laid off when the hotel closed for renovations in December, she got a job last month with the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Universal City, Calif., where she’s a banquet server for events including weddings, parties, and meetings.

Many of the jobs being created have low wages and no benefits. Hotels are also operating with smaller staffs than in the past, says Annemarie Strassel, a communications coordinator with Unite Here, a New York-based union representing industry workers. Industry employment still is 200,900 off the July 2008 peak, Department of Commerce data show.

Even so, the hotel industry “provides opportunities to the very portion of our population looking for work,” says David Huether, senior vice president of economics and research at the U.S. Travel Association. Unemployment was 24.9 percent in April for teenagers 16 to 19 years old and 12.5 percent for people who haven’t finished high school. Cook, a high school graduate, makes $8 an hour plus tips in her new job, which she says is “great,” even though she’s part-time, so she supplements her income with caregiving work that pays $9 an hour. She hopes to increase her hours to become eligible for health insurance soon

The bottom line: With the number of hotel workers up 3.2 percent in March, the lodging industry could play a big role in generating jobs.

Jackson is a reporter for Bloomberg News.
Feld is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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