After a 30-year career, including stints in banking and as a senior receptionist, Lena Ebanks found herself unemployed at exactly the wrong time.
She was between jobs when the pandemic struck and the employment listings shrank from a thick section of the classifieds to almost nothing.
Around the same time, Sarah Myers was just coming to the end of three years of study for an associate degree in hospitality and was beginning to wonder if she had picked the wrong career.
She sent her resume to businesses all across the island, but with hotels and restaurants closed, there were no vacancies.
Now both women – at opposite ends of their career journeys – are involved in a new scheme that aims to use the COVID-enforced shutdown of the tourism industry as a chance to attract and train Caymanians to take front-line roles.
They were among nearly 70 applicants referred by the Workforce Opportunities and Residency Cayman department for the Marriott’s front-desk training certification.
Along with four other successful applicants, they are midway through an intensive 10-week programme that hotel management acknowledges would have been difficult to achieve during a typical high season.
“It has given us the opportunity to have that one-on-one focus,” said Noelia Herrera, senior quality supervisor for the resort and one of the instructors in the training programme.
“They have more time to learn without the pressure. It is great to see how motivated and enthusiastic they are.”
More than 100 employees, including several front-desk workers, left the hotel during the COVID crisis, and Valerie Hoppe, director of human resources, says there will be jobs available.
The programme is also a test run for a new partnership that could utilise Cayman’s half-empty hotels as a network of training centres to retool and reskill unemployed Caymanians for jobs in stayover tourism.
Hoppe says hotels across the island are ready to play their part. The Marriott will take the lead on front-desk training but, depending on need, similar programmes for food and beverage, beach and pool, and reservations could be developed at the Kimpton, The Ritz-Carlton and the Westin.
A network of hotel managers and human resources chiefs is working with the Workforce Opportunities and Residency Cayman department to find a way forward.
Marc Langevin, general manager of The Ritz-Carlton, said the key is to find out more information about the qualifications and interests of Cayman’s unemployed population.
“We need to know who are these people and what type of skills do they have, what type of training do they require, and what is their aspiration? If it is not to work in the hotel industry, we can’t help them,” he said.
For those who are interested, committed and have the right attitude, he said there would be opportunity.
“If the ambition is a job tomorrow, that is not going to happen because the borders are closed,” Langevin added.
“What we can do is train and develop people for when those jobs return.”
Thousands of lost jobs
The impact of the pandemic on the employment situation in Cayman, particularly on the tourism industry, has been extensive.
At least 4,500 workers from overseas have left the islands after being made redundant. Somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 Caymanians are estimated to have lost jobs in the industry over the past six months.
On top of that, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of workers still being paid base wages by their employers, though there is no work for them to do.
The Marriott will host a hospitality open day next week, on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Organised in partnership with WORC and the Ministry of Tourism, the event is being put on by Cayman’s major hotels to showcase what opportunities exist in the stayover industry.
It is not a ‘careers fair’ and most of the attendees will walk away without an offer of employment.
“There are no jobs right now,” says Langevin. His hotel is running at around 20% occupancy and there are staff still on the payroll who have not been brought back to work as yet.
The purpose of next week’s event is to help evaluate Cayman’s unemployed population and match them with training opportunities.
Some of those opportunities don’t exist yet. Hoppe said the aim is to find out the needs and ambitions of those who are out of work and develop the right programmes to meet that need.
The upside of the absence of tourists is that it gives hotels the opportunity and space to focus on training.
“This is the time for us to assess that unemployed population and start them on some training before we actually start to staff up,” Hoppe said.
When the borders do fully reopen and hotels need staff that are ready to go, there will be a “pre-qualified talent pool” of Caymanians to fill those vacancies, she said.
Changing perception of hospitality
The coronavirus may have also helped accelerate a shift in attitude of job seekers towards the hospitality industry, said Hoppe.
Traditionally it has been difficult to attract Caymanians to jobs in tourism, in part because of the long hours and lower pay, compared with banking and other white-collar work.
There was also a stigma, she believes, around the idea of serving.
“Kids were being told hospitality is not a good career,” she says, “but I think that is changing.”
The need for work is also influencing people who might not have considered a career in hotels, to think again about their options.
The long-term future of cruise tourism is uncertain and anyone who relies on that sector for a pay cheque is being advised to ‘retrain and retool’.
Wayne Jackson, director of the School of Hospitality Studies at the University College of the Cayman Islands, said it had organised a series of short courses aimed at getting people ready for when the tourists and the jobs return.
A four-week customer-service course has more than 240 people signed up to attend. Longer courses, too, are attracting more applicants than ever – despite the tourism downturn.
Jackson sees plenty of reason for hope in terms of tourism career options for Caymanians in the longer term.
His main programme, a one-year course aimed primarily at high school leavers, is almost fully subscribed.
And though the state of the industry may look bleak right now, he believes the future will be filled with opportunities for his students.
Jackson, who paid his way through college in Miami on tips from his job as a bartender, believes part of his role is to change the mindset that tourism careers are not as lucrative as white-collar work.
While entry-level salaries are low, he said gratuities add to the pay cheque, and career progression is swift.
“There is a relatively quick path to success if you have a good attitude and are personable,” he said.
Opportunities for entrepreneurs are also likely to increase post-COVID, Jackson believes.
He cites the Let’s Eat food-delivery app as one example of a new business that found a niche in the new economy.
Part of government’s tourism plan involves loans and business-development support for entrepreneurs, though no official programme has been announced as yet.
“The entrepreneurial spirit comes alive in times like this,” he said.
“If you think doom and gloom, you will only see doom and gloom. But anyone looking at this industry should be chomping at the bit because opportunities are presenting themselves.”
Work permits still required
There needs to be some realism as well about the capacity of the stayover tourism sector to solve all of Cayman’s employment problems, Langevin said.
It is not practical, he warned, to fill all the positions that will be needed to get hotels back in business from the ranks of those left unemployed through COVID-19.
“Is it possible to make someone a five-star server for Blue in three months? The answer is no,” he said. “But for some jobs, you can. If we know your skills and aspiration, we can create a career path.”
Langevin said there was enough booking interest to have 60% occupancy at the resort over Christmas.
But that can’t happen at current staffing levels.
“We will need 200 new employees,” he said. Realistically, only a percentage of those can be new to the industry and work-permit holders will be required.
“The key to our success is level of service,” he said. “For us to train and employ Caymanians, we need to be able to open and to provide that level of service that we are known for.”
When the borders reopen, he believes, hoteliers should be able to access a list of trained and pre-qualified local candidates that can fill vacancies. For those positions where experience is required and candidates are not found locally, he said they will need cooperation to fast-track permits.
“We need WORC and Travel Time to act fast. It takes trust and partnership on both sides to make it happen,” he said.
Ready to work
With the coronavirus still raging across the globe, and particularly in the US, questions still remain over how soon Cayman will be able to welcome back tourists.
For both employers and potential employees, this period of downtime is a chance to make sure they are ready when that moment arrives.
“I am really grateful for this chance,” said Ebanks, one of the trainees in the Marriott’s front-desk programme. “I hope that things will soon be able to get back on track and we can get to work, but I know it could be a long process. We each have to take it one day at a time.”
For Myers, who graduates next month from her tourism programme at UCCI after completing her classes on Zoom during lockdown, it is a strange first step into the industry. But she doesn’t regret her choice.
“Even though the jobs are not here right now, we can still prepare for them and be ready when they do come back,” she said.