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Tight-Labor Economy Boosts Training

Mike Ferguson might be forgiven for feeling like the one-man-band of hotel managers.

His day goes like this: Smile, balance the books, smile, tap at the computer keyboard, smile, correct a stubborn door lock, smile, take a reservation, smile.

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"I wear lots of hats," he says, smiling.

He'd better. His employer, Marriott International, wants more from employees. The chain is booming; competition is fierce; and skilled workers are hard to find.

So Marriott is trying to do more with less, stepping up training programs for employees like Mr. Ferguson.

Marriott is far from alone, and that's good news for the American worker. Higher skills often bring higher pay.

Corporate America is targeting what many executives consider the biggest threat to United States industry today: not higher interest rates, an East Asian meltdown, or sprawling government, but a poorly trained work force.

Indeed, ill-prepared employees and poor schools top the list of the nation's worst economic problems, according to a recent survey of 39 corporate economists by the National Association for Business Economics in Washington.

And 88 percent of US manufacturers report a shortage of qualified workers in at least one job category, says a recent survey of 4,500 companies by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).

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"Finding an adequate supply of qualified workers is the No. 1 issue for American industry today," says Earnest Deavenport, chairman of Eastman Chemical Co. and of the NAM in Washington.

Consequently, about half of manufacturers spend at least 2 percent of payroll to train hourly workers, up threefold from 1991.

Moreover, the portion of employees in formal training has swelled from 5 percent in 1987 to 16 percent today, says the American Society for Training and Development in Alexandria, Va.

The training is driven by some tectonic economic trends:

* The job market is tighter than any time in nearly a quarter-century, with an unemployment rate lower than 5 percent.

* Disappearing, global trade barriers stiffen foreign competition for US companies, forcing them to work smarter.

* The rapid spread of high technology requires companies to spend billions making employees "computer friendly."

* Companies in many industries are rapidly merging, splintering their markets into thin slivers as they tailor products to myriad consumer profiles. This consolidation and segmentation requires a retrained and specialized work force.

Marriott, based in Bethesda, Md., epitomizes many of the work force challenges.

The huge hotel chain (179,00 employees) dramatically increased training two years ago and raised the budget 25 percent this year, says Natalie Hughes, a Marriott training executive.

Archrival Ramada recently announced its own $3 million annual training program.

Marriott and the hotel industry boast one of their biggest booms in history. Nationwide, the number of hotel rooms expanded 39 percent over the past decade, according to Coopers & Lybrand. Employment will grow 19 percent by 2005, the Labor Department predicts.

Marriott plans to double its facilities by 2000 and has geared them to narrow segments of travelers: economical, moderate-price, and luxury hotels.

But luring and retaining qualified staff are daunting for most hotels. Annual turnover rates in some segments exceed 50 percent, say industry experts.

Ferguson says he must continually update his skills to perform at his peak.

When he switched from a full-service hotel to moderately priced Marriott Courtyard, he logged three weeks of training last summer at Courtyard University.

Lectures, computer training, and deportment training at a mock front desk teach a distinct "product and culture at Courtyard," says university director Kathy Crabtree in Centreville, Va. "What our trainees really need is to be brand-specific and brand-pure."

Ferguson, an assistant manager, must take another 40 hours of training annually, and he sees certain career value: "I'm not going anywhere without it."

Workers Weighed, and Found Wanting

"The skills gap is now catching up to us and could threaten the amazing growth and productivity gains," says Earnest Deavenport, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) in Washington.

American workers took home a poor report-card in a recent survey of 4,500 companies by the NAM:

* 60 percent say their workers lack basic math skills.

* 55 percent find their workers are seriously weak in basic writing and comprehension skills.

* 63 percent say their workers are tardy, chronically absent, or unwilling to work a full day.

* Half found it difficult to give employees more autonomy.

* Two-thirds have difficulty improving productivity and upgrading technology.

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