By mid-afternoon, this past Tuesday, Bay 7 on the American Tobacco Campus was lively, string lights and decorated table displays lending the kind of cheery ambiance expected at a hospitality job fair. An excited friction lingered in the air, too, as workers and employers chit-chatted. 

It’s no secret that the hospitality industry has been hit hard over the past 16 months. Many businesses did not survive the pandemic, and those that did are still struggling to get back on their feet. And a nationwide labor shortage—or ‘wage shortage,’ as some hospitality workers call it—has stalled a full return to normal. 

According to the North Carolina Department of Commerce, there was a loss of 87,200 jobs from January 2020 to January 2021. Now, as restaurants, bars and hotels reopen, employers are tasked with creating jobs appealing enough to rebuild a burnt-out workforce.

Discover Durham’s in-person food and beverage job fair, a partnership with ATC and the Durham Workforce Development Board, was one response to this. Hosted on the afternoon of July 13, the job fair brought together almost 30 Durham businesses—including Mad Hatters, Beyu Caffee, and QueenBurger—looking to hire for full-time positions. 

Discover Durham CEO Susan Amey says that the pandemic marked a turning point in the industry, as employees and employers begin to have more serious conversations about pay, benefits, and respect in the workplace. To participate in the job fair, Discover Durham required employers to offer a base pay of at least $13 an hour. 

“Employers are recognizing that they need to pay more, they need to get thinking about benefits, they need to figure out how all these other employers are hiring. This is a real opportunity to raise working standards,” she says.

A recent Discover Durham survey of local businesses from this past spring found that, of the 70-plus respondents, 79 percent reported staff recruitment as an urgent issue, and 64 percent saw the workforce shortage as detrimental to their business. Meanwhile, employees are recovering from a year in which their job security and health were brutally tested. 

Raquel Rosario came to the job fair in hopes of finding a reasonable part-time job for her 16-year old son, Andres Rivera Rosario, while he studies at Hillside High School. She herself has a background in the hospitality industry, and wants her son to secure a job with mobility. 

“There are so many opportunities for him to get involved in different positions,” Rosario says. “In a hotel, he can start at the bellhop, and go from there to the kitchen, to banquets, to the front desk. I want him to learn those soft and hard skills that will help him in any future position.” 

Mad Hatters owner Fida Ghamen emphasized the need for entry-level and expert-level jobs in the food industry. As she tells it, part of the beauty of hospitality is that people can start and move upwards at many different skill levels.

“We’re all trying to rebuild our kingdom here,” Ghamen says. “We want to hire local and we are in need of employees. It was already tough before the pandemic and now it’s getting even harder because we lost a lot of long-term employees to other industries.”

Ghamen attributes much of the worker shortage to a negative perception of food industry jobs and a lack of curriculum in technical colleges. 

“Unfortunately, it’s not looked at as or pushed as a viable career option in college or in high school,” she says. “I feel like it should be cherished and respected, whether in the kitchen or at the front of the house. We’ve suffered because we’re not really a traditional industry.”

Art teacher Jaylan Watson has just begun to dip his toes in the job search. He attended the job fair looking for part-time work to help him as he goes back through college, and says he hopes to find a job with benefits that pays at least $15 an hour.

“I’m looking for a living wage,” Watson says. “People are realizing how much they’ve been doing for how little. I like how I’m seeing here how many businesses are giving $15 an hour. I figured I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring myself out here and throw my hat in the ring.”

In the corner of the room, Jen Marks, owner of East Cut Sandwich Bar, decorated her table to the nines, covering it with rainbow lights and sample sandwiches. If the job fair was a room of high schoolers, she quipped, her table would be the theatre kid. The extravagance is charming, but it also served as an attempt to draw in future employees. 

“We want to offer a hiring opportunity that’s not your typical hospitality industry job,” Marks says. “We have a focus on core values; we try to put good energy out into the world and treat people with respect. That’s the direction I think the industry is going to have to move into to keep people coming.”

COVID revealed a shift, she says, in what employees were looking for in work benefits: A greater emphasis on health, safety, and meal plans. But she knows better than to place the blame squarely on the pandemic. 

“These things don’t happen in a vacuum,” Marks says. “People historically have had issues with or have been burnt out by the hospitality industry at large.”

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