“The Pacific Rim cuisine movement is very exciting, and I like working close to my family and being around our beautiful islands and ocean. Being an island boy, to me there are no other people in the world like the local people,” Lemson said. “It’s the same for other people, too. We have managers who have been here since the hotel opened in 1976.”
At age 52, Lemson is one of many Hawaii visitor industry managers who are contributing to a trend: More than half of the state’s accommodations managers are over age 45, and nearly 25 percent are over 55 years old. At the same time, Hawaii tourism officials have noted that fewer local youth are pursuing tourism degrees and jobs.
While older workers bring much to the table in terms of skills, experience, attitude and teaching capabilities, Hawaii’s visitor industry needs a balance of older and younger workers so the intellectual capital gets passed from one generation to the next, said David Uchiyama, vice president of brand management for the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
“Our workforce is aging,” Uchiyama said. “We need to work on recruiting younger kids who were raised here and understand the cultural values into the management of the hotel industry, or eventually we could lose what differentiates Hawaii from other destinations.”
The workforce is a mirror of the population as a whole, which is aging across the country and in Hawaii, said Bruce Bottorff, associate state director for Hawaii’s AARP. To be sure, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated earlier this year that nearly 2 million older workers have entered the workforce since the last recession, making the percentage of workers over age 65 the highest it’s been since 1965. The bureau said there are 7.7 million people over age 65 working and that they make up about 18.5 percent of the workforce. Moreover, the bureau has reported that the percentage of even older workers, ages 75 and up, has grown to 7.8 percent, nearly double the percentage from 1987. There are now 1.4 million workers over 75, the most ever, according to the bureau.
“Since the turn of the millennium, we’ve seen more older workers staying in their jobs or even those who weren’t previously looking for work move back into the labor force in order to support themselves,” said San Francisco-based BLS economist Tian Luo.
Bottorff said as many as 50 percent of Hawaii residents over age 50, who were surveyed by the AARP about a year ago, said they would delay retirement by up to five years, and a quarter of them said they might never retire.
But while the number of older workers has been growing in Hawaii and nationwide, the opposite appears to be true for the younger set. Nationwide the number of workers ages 20 to 24 has declined 6.3 percent since 2000, Luo said.
“It appears to be tougher for younger generation fresh out of college to find jobs,” Luo said. “They are competing with lots of people who already have job experience.”
While Luo does not have specific age-related labor force data for Hawaii or for the state’s visitor industry, Hawaii’s tourism officials say there are signs that the state is following these national trends. Businesses throughout Hawaii report that fewer workers are retiring early and that many are staying on the job longer, even ones for whom work has become physically challenging.
“Since 2009 I’d say most of our workers have delayed retirement,” said Mitch Sipiala, senior director of human resources for the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. “Even when the jobs are physically challenging, we see people that are forced to continue the work, so we are constantly trying to re-purpose people.”
Knowledge that these workers will eventually retire has motivated Hawaii’s visitor industry to step up recruitment of young managers from the islands.
Nona Tamanaha, regional director of human resources for Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Hawaii, said approximately 30 percent of the hotel chain’s associates and managers will be eligible for retirement within the next five years in Waikiki and between 10 to 15 percent of them on the neighbor islands.
“Housekeeping, stewards and engineering will have a higher percentage of retirees than other departments, which could be problematic,” Tamanaha said.
Starwood works hard at recruitment and has not seen a decline in applications for employment from the younger generation or those who are just entering the workforce, she said.
“We do a lot with the schools, especially the high schools, community colleges, Hawaii Pacific University, Brigham Young University and the University of Hawaii,” Tamanaha said.
Starwood participates in career and shadowing days and job fairs, she said. Uchiyama said the state also has partnered with visitor industry employers, schools and nonprofits like ClimbHI, which works to prevent kids from dropping out. Together they try to get Hawaii students thinking about careers in the visitor industry at a younger age.
ClimbHI founder Julie Morikawa and the HTA last year launched Leadership, Exploration and Inspiration (LEI), which connected 300 high school students from economically disadvantaged areas on Oahu with leaders in the state’s visitor industry. This year LEI will expand to 500 students.
“We see ourselves as a link between businesses and opportunities and our youth,” Morikawa said.
Konrad Talon, a 2010 University of Hawaii Travel Industry Management (TIM) School graduate, said workforce development programs such as LEI make a difference.
Talon, who is now an assistant guest services manager at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, said if not for the Academy of Travel and Tourism at his Maui high school, he would not have graduated from college or considered a career in tourism.
“Taking this class as an elective is what really drove my interest,” Talon said. “I come from a family of not well-educated individuals. We didn’t talk about tourism opportunities at the dinner table.”
Morikawa also knows the transforming power of Hawaii’s visitor industry, which helped her rise from a challenging background to become Expedia’s director of market management in Hawaii.
“If I hadn’t had that exposure through dancing, I wouldn’t have been able to see what was possible,” she said. “We need to reach Hawaii students before those that are struggling quit or those that are moving on choose a college or a career.”
Though Morikawa began her career in the eastern U.S., she was strongly motivated to return.
“If we all leave and don’t come back, there’s no Hawaii. I strongly believe that we need to find ways to keep the locals and the culture here,” she said.
Most agree that Hawaii needs an age-balanced visitor industry workforce made up of employees who understand the host culture, but there are hurdles to overcome. In some cases, concerns about the disparity between pay rates in Hawaii and the price of paradise have enticed young people to move away or choose other fields. In other cases, young people interrupt their studies to take jobs, especially in food and beverage, that bring instant pay gratification. Academic pathways are another stumbling block, Uchiyama said. Many of Hawaii’s students, who want to be visitor industry managers, begin their degrees at state community colleges only to find that they can’t get enough credit when they try to transfer to the TIM School.
“The TIM School is working with us to create a natural pathway,” Uchiyama said. “It costs money and time when kids lose credits.”
The university and the industry lose out, too, Uchiyama added.
“As I started to get into this deeper, I realized that when kids that had intended to go into travel industry management saw that their credits didn’t transfer, they started to look for other academic paths,” he said. “Others left the state to enroll in schools like the University of Nevada-Las Vegas that accepted their credits.”
The state’s geographic isolation and high cost of living also weigh heavily on older and younger workers. Since workers can’t drive to the next city or state to find a different job, visitor industry managers who want to stay in the islands typically hang on to jobs longer than their mainland peers.
“If this is your preferred place to live, the work becomes secondary,” Sipiala said. “People prefer to be here, and sometimes they will self-select not to pursue jobs at a higher level.”
This in turn means that there are fewer middle-management jobs available to younger workers, and many must seek transfers to the mainland or abroad to continue growing, he said.
“Some of my older workers block progression because they are sitting in the path of my high-achievers,” Sipiala said. “But they are often highly skilled, and they make great mentors for our younger workers who need that leadership.”
Kyle Higa, a 31-year-old chef tournant at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa, said staying in Hawaii and working under sous-chef Lemson has afforded him advantages that he would not have found elsewhere.
“There are a lot more opportunities on the mainland, but it’s a smaller network here, so I get to work directly with the people that I’ve heard about all of my life,” Higa said. “On the mainland I’d never see the sous-chef.”
Still, Lemson said at times it’s challenging to make younger Hawaii workers aware of what local businesses offer.
“Sometimes we have to hire people who don’t have the cultural background,” he said. “They don’t have a local palate, so the learning curve is high.”
Jerry Westenhaver, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa, said he addressed some of these concerns with the recent hire of Hawaiian cultural practitioners Aka Oclinaria and April Chock, who serve as employee and guest resources. He also assigns managers to leadership groups, where they share stories, read books and listen to speakers.
“We are trying to help our people get to the next level,” said Westenhaver, whose goal is to promote 29 managers internally this year. “Either you grow or you deteriorate. We don’t want people to stay where they are. We need to move people around so that they have better opportunities.”
After a few years on the job in Hawaii, Sipiala encourages the best and brightest to consider transferring to other hotels in the chain where they will have more opportunity to advance.
“Last year I transferred 14 managers to other hotels,” Sipiala said. “We like to bring them back whenever we get the chance.”
For instance, 80 percent of last year’s management hires were homegrown, he said.
Scott Pirscher, who graduated from the TIM School in 2011 and now works as the housekeeping manager at the Fairmont Orchid on Hawaii island, said most upwardly mobile young managers in Hawaii’s visitor industry expect that they might need to relocate at some point in their career.
“It’s a very competitive industry,” Pirscher said, “but I still think it is one of the better career choices that you can make in Hawaii.”