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Mind the Skills Gap

Author: Bill Barnett. Category: News Column - Phuket Gazette. Posted: 2nd Jun 2012

Like bees around the honey pot, the island's coconut wireless, online and print media have swarmed to the saga of the Evason's closure and the dismissal of its staff.

It's a passionate situation that will no doubt have more curves than the Monaco Formula 1 race.

I am presently typing like a madman in order to get out of the office and back home for a glimpse of the high octane spectacle - the F1, that is. Not the hotel closure.

I'm not getting into the issue of who is right or wrong at the Evason. Let's just say - it's complicated.

What is more important is the broader view of the days ahead for Phuket's legacy hotels, which are aging faster than a former porn star who has run out of Botox.

I can safely say there will be more hotel sales coming up soon, from north to south, and west to east. It's not a one-off and, as we love to say here in the tropical rabbit hole, same same.

My own love affair with hotels began with cross country summer trips in my parent's station wagon, staying at roadside motels.

I've worked in the business for nearly 30 years: carried bags, made beds, checked guests in and out, done the nightshift, tended bar and changed light bulbs. I didn't start out glamorously and I've had more name tags and timecards than I can recall.

Inching up the ladder and eventually going abroad has been a fabulous life.

Hospitality makes for a great career for any student. Strangely enough, I still feel passionate about my job, rushing to work more times than not. I often find myself reflecting on how charmed a life it's been while sitting in some exotic destination.

But, from the hotels I've stayed in over the years and the colleagues and staff with whom I've come in contact, I can easily see what makes a hotel extraordinary.

In so many cases, it's the "X" Factor. It's not the hardware, but the software that keeps things interesting - human capital.

Those little things: simple recognition, a smile, a staff member going out of their way or extraordinary service that make the experience most memorable.

Over the past 20 years Phuket has taken a strange and wonderful journey from a niche backpacking destination, to a popular seaside holiday place for Europeans, then into the luxury-pool villas and now into the mass-market.

Those workers who started in the golden age of island tourism are now middle-aged. The same goes for many hotels.

What was popular five, 10 or 15 years ago, isn't in vogue any more. Tastes change, clients mature and the market never stays static.

Despite my love of the business it does have its illogical and superficial side. Asian hospitality still remains in a different world, where youth, looks and an endless supply of new workers remains in vogue. Yes, even I succumb to turning my head in the airport when a trio of smiling AirAsia flight attendants walk by.

The industry workforce here requires a fairly large amount of staff. In legacy hotels, in many cases, they lack higher education and have received only minimal job skills training. This is in broad terms, and there remain many exceptions, but for the most part it's a bottom heavy superstructure, a numbers game.

For older hotel staff, it's enormously hard to adapt to international chains after getting used to family-run hotels. Technology is on the move and, overall, there is a huge gap between those trained in universities that specialize in hospitality and those who have only rudimentary skills.

As we move into the next generation of tourism, the critical issue is not just creating a bureaucracy to illogically protect jobs, but to improve standards of hospitality training, education and language skills.

In the meantime we are headed into a mean few years as more hotels redevelop and are bought and sold. More retrenchments and layoffs are inevitable.

With rising costs, efficient and effective staff members are now going to become more and more an object of desire.

Let's hope our hotel industry takes the long term path to developing not just jobs, but careers.

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