The hunt is on for skilled labour to fuel a tourism recovery whose pace has surprised many. In an exclusive interview with LetsTravelCaribbean.com Tourism Minister Ed Bartlett revealed that the sector will need to hire 50,000 workers within the next three months.
“We have to start recruiting from now, so we can train them and get them in time for the winter season in October, November. The issue is whether or not the skill sets required will be there in line with the number of people who are available for work,” said the tourism minister.
He also spoke about the sooner-than-expected return of cruise shipping (the first vessel arrives within a few weeks), the possibility that the tourism industry will poach workers from the BPO sector as it makes a more aggressive push into digital marketing, plans to engage the 1.24 billion Chinese using the WeChat platform, and his confidence in the resilience of the tourism sector despite the black cloud of a pandemic. Read on for details of the interview done the same day Bartlett and the rest of the Cabinet huddled to craft new measures in reaction to a spike in COVID-19 cases.
LetsTravelCaribbean.com: There’s a spike in cases, what does this mean for the recent uptick seen in the tourism industry?
Bartlett: Tourism is still back, it’s strong, we’re doing very well. We have to also be mindful that we’re still in a pandemic and our comportment with the protocols has to continue as vigorously as before. We have to ensure that all the safety standards are met. If indeed there are any global disruptions, or if the spread of the virus as it mutates affects us in Jamaica or our source markets, then of course we will have to pivot and be able to respond. However… the industry is well set for full recovery by 2022/23.
LetsTravelCaribbean.com: The last timeline given for cruise ships to return was October. Are we still on track?
Bartlett: We’re expected to get cruise back in August. We finished [crafting] the [safety] protocols. One cruiseliner will make about 16 calls between August and October, with up to 4,000 passengers each call. That would be 64,000 just from that one line. And then of course the winter kicks in and that’s when you have good numbers. Quite a few of them are going to be calling so you could be getting 200,000 to 300,000 cruise visitors by the end of the year. So that’s how [we would reach the projected] 1.7 [million cruise and stopover visitors expected for 2021]. Some of the cruises that will come are Royal Caribbean, MSC Cruises and Disney Cruise Line.
LetsTravelCaribbean.com: There was a recent report in the Jamaica Observer that tourism has been losing staff to the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector. Are you nervous yet?
Bartlett: Not at all. We have the responsibility to train and that’s what we have to do. We have to build up the human capital that the industry requires. We are pushing for more training and certification. Because what is happening is that many of the workers who were furloughed or otherwise disconnected from the industry have had to pivot into other areas. And even though 50,000 have returned to their jobs already, we had 175,000 [employed before the pandemic]. So you still have a gap there to fill. We are running short now because the rate of recovery is fast outpacing the supply side. I would say that we need to find, overall, about 50,000 workers for the industry. We’ll certainly need them in time for the winter season. That’s October, November. So we have to start recruiting from now, so we can train them and get them in time for the winter season. The labour force is expanding, with the college system turning out workers, [so] there is going to be a supply adequacy. The issue, on the other hand, is whether or not the skill sets that you require will be there in line with the number of people who are available for work.
LetsTravelCaribbean.com: With some of your former workers now employed to the BPO sector, which by all accounts has been doing very well during the pandemic, are you concerned that the BPO sector could dethrone tourism as the major earner?
Bartlett: No, we’re happy for the growth [but know] they couldn’t earn $3 million in a year [as the tourism industry could]. We are happy for the BPO because it is diversifying the economy and it’s helping to increase the foreign exchange inflows, which is vital to the country. But we are going to be taking people from them too, who knows. Because tourism is going to focus a lot on the Internet of Things in the future. BPO workers would be very dexterous in the digital space. We would need that sort of support for much of the marketing, the data management, data mining, and data analytics that we love to do.
LetsTravelCaribbean.com: Speaking about digital marketing, The Bahamas and the Dominican Republic are among 52 countries or regions taking advantage of the Global Tourism Boards WeChat Channels Creators Plan launched in March. It’s a way to market destinations by engaging the Chinese platform WeChat’s 1.24 billion users. Any plans for Jamaica to participate?
Bartlett: We are looking at it because the use of digital platforms as a means of transacting business, conveying information and providing access to your market is very critical. And it’s a huge part of the strategy, the way forward. Reaching the Chinese market via that platform is going to be a very exciting prospect. We are now rearranging our systems to deal with these long haul destinations. Places like China and Japan are now being placed back on our radar as we see the recovery from the United States market, and we watch this seemingly recovery from Canada, and the UK, and Europe. So [WeChat] is something that we definitely have on the radar. It’s very important.