After losing over 126,000 jobs last year, Tennessee’s tourism industry faces labor shortage as travel rebounds

Tennessee’s tourism industry isn’t just trying to draw more visitors this summer as it recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.

State and industry groups are also advertising to get more workers to fill nearly 50,000 available jobs at local attractions, hotels, restaurants and other travel-related businesses amid one of the biggest labor shortages in decades.

Tennessee’s Department of Tourist Development has joined with the industry trade group HospitalityTN to try to attract workers to the state’s growing leisure and hospitality industry. The new “Come Work, Come Play” campaign launched Thursday urges prospective employees from across the country to come to Tennessee for a friendlier climate of outdoor, music-oriented and fun-based work and play.

“The great news is that the demand is truly back for tourism and leisure hospitality in Tennessee,” said Mark Ezell, commissioner for Tennessee’s Department of Tourist Development, who said May travel bookings were up nearly 10% from 2019’s record-high levels. “That has correspondingly created a crisis in hospitality employment and our supply of workers right now is not meeting the demand that the businesses need.”

Ezell said the worker shortage in the hospitality industry may be one of the biggest in the state’s history with many restaurants and other businesses being forced to limit hours that they are open because of a lack of available workers to staff their operation.

Tennessee’s tourism industry, which swelled to more than $23 billion in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic, is the state’s second biggest industry behind only agriculture. Last spring when the pandemic shut down most travel and forced the closing of most schools and many businesses, employment in the hospitality and leisure industry in Tennessee dropped last year by 126,000 jobs from March to April. Since then, more than 88,000 of those lost jobs oin hospitality have returned, but Ezell estimates the state needs up to 50,000 more workers to fully staff and meet the rising demand.

Even with the gain of another 3,000 workers in Tennessee’s hospitality industry last month, employment still remains more than 40,000 jobs below the level of two years ago even though many tourism businesses now report they are as busy as ever.

David Martin, chief operating officer for the Chattanooga-based hotel chain Vision Hospitality, said employees are in great demand to fill jobs that continue to be added in the industry.

“We are still in need of employees across our organization to fill virtually every discipline in hotel and restaurant operations,” he said. “The current job market in general is difficult; there are not enough people willing to work while they are being paid by the government at a higher rate of historical pay scales.”

Unemployment in May

* 4.1% in Georgia, down from 4.3% in April

* 5% in Tennessee, unchanged from May

* 5.8% in the U.S. as a whole, down from 6.1% in May

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Georgia Department of Labor


The federal government has been paying unemployed workers looking for other jobs an extra $300 a week this year under the stimulus package adopted by Congress to limit the economic fallout from the pandemic. But those extra federal supplemental benefits will end in Tennessee on July 3, cutting jobless benefits by more than 50% in Tennessee.

Currently, Martin said employers are having to use contract labor at a much higher pay scale and are often employing less skilled and experienced workers who are less productive, “which adds additional challenges to our staffing models.”

At See Rock City atop Lookout Mountain, company president Susan Harris said hiring for the attraction “has been challenging this spring” and persons are still being hired to help staff what is promising to be a robust summer season.

“Visitation at Rock City Gardens has been very strong in 2021, exceeding 2019, and we expect that to continue through the summer,” Harris said. “Families are looking for quality outings and experiences and the Chattanooga area is an in-demand destination because of all that we offer.”

Ezell said employers say they also are boosting wages for many hospitality jobs. But to fill all of the vacancies, the state’s tourism agency teamed up with a state trade association for the first time to try to recruit workers to fill jobs.

“Our most valuable resource is our people,” said Rob Mortensen, president and CEO of HospitalityTN, the state trade industry group which is helping to sponsor the ad campaign that runs through August. “This administration has stepped up in so many ways during the last year, and this is yet another example of our Governor and his team going above and beyond the call for action.”

The marketing agency VMLY&R created a digital campaign as part of the first joint workforce development effort of its kind between state government and a trade association. The advertisements promote the advantages of working in Tennessee’s hospitality industry and will run in major markets across Tennessee and in out-of-state markets that show the most propensity for relocation including Austin, Dallas, Las Vegas, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, Charlotte, Atlanta, Orlando, New Orleans, Milwaukee and Washington D.C.

According to U.S. Travel, 38% of Americans start their career in a travel-related job, Furthermore, travel is the No. 1 industry for Americans reentering the workforce due to its flexible hours, entry-level opportunities, acceptance of all backgrounds, diversity of available work and sheer size.

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said Thursday that employment across all industries rose during May by 5,000 jobs. The state’s seasonally adjusted jobless rate remained steady at 5%, which was still below the comparable 5.8% unemployment rate for the U.S. as a whole.

In the 12 months ended in May 2020, non-farm employment across the state increased by 231,500 jobs. The leisure/hospitality sector grew the fastest at 24.1% in the past year.

In Georgia, the jobless rate fell last month by two tenths of a percentage point to 4.1% with the addition of 7,000 more jobs despite a slight drop in the size of the state’s workforce.

“Although the unemployment rate has continued to trend downward for the past 13 months, the focus should not be on the rate,” Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said. “We have a serious workforce issue reflected in the monthly drop in the labor force. With the amount of jobs listed in Employ Georgia combined with the number of employers I am hearing from daily who are struggling to find employees, we need to see our labor force increase dramatically.”

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or at 423-757-6340