There is no shortage of young talent available, but most are looking for secure positions in fields and companies that will earn parental approval.

Are you starting to miss the old problems you used to have before the world went pear-shaped? When instead of being unable to find guests, the big issue was finding local managerial talent to employ? When every conference had a hotel CEO observing that recruiting the right people was the biggest challenge facing the industry in the near future? Then it’s time for a New Year’s resolution: time to solve yesterday’s problems, today.

Hoteliers across Asia have long argued that while hospitality plays a significant role in the region’s economy, it is not easy to find local staff who wish to pursue careers in hotel management. Explanations have often focused on culture, suggesting that in general, Asians are family-oriented and have little interest in working long hours, or pursuing opportunities for career development overseas. Poor language skills have sometimes been cited, pushing the narrative that many locals lack the skills and confidence to thrive in an international environment. Whatever the truth of these claims, hoteliers remain in agreement that the pipeline for local talent has a tendency to run dry, so set out to take a closer look at the supply side of the equation to find out exactly why this might be the case, and to explain what hoteliers should be doing about it.  

I have had a fair bit of involvement in the Thai education system, and know one group of students quite well; they are currently in mathayom 6 – the final year of school before they start university. These students are all from a comfortable middle-class background and have solid English skills; they have IELTS scores in the range of 6 to 8.5, so at worst they can communicate easily in English, and at best they are writing academic English to a high standard. They are all aged 17-18, and there are 50 of them in total – 45 of whom I would happily recommend to any hotelier tomorrow as future management candidates. However, not one of them has the slightest interest in hospitality.

In this group of would-be engineers, doctors, accountants, lawyers, businesspersons, and IT specialists, the two key factors keeping them away from hospitality are image and ignorance: their ignorance of the career opportunities available, and the image that hospitality careers project in a status-conscious society.

Ignorance starts at home. “We only know what we see, and what our parents tell us,” said one. When young western children are asked what they want to be when they grow up, the question appeals to their imagination and the answers ‘astronaut’, ‘footballer’, ‘pop star’ seem perfectly reasonable. There is nothing wrong with dreaming. For Thai children, however, the question demands realistic answers and stakes out a path which the child is expected to follow. The career choice will usually be heavily influenced by the parents, and determines much of the educational path required for entry.

“We don’t really know anything about hotels, except what we see,” said another. What they see is typically limited to the lower-level service roles. Without clear examples, information, and role models, these students have no reason to be drawn to a career that, from their perspective, must be performed largely in secret. The service-type jobs that are visible are to a certain extent looked down upon.

“What would I have to study?” asked one. “This is the prospectus from one of the bigger universities – they offer a really wide range of courses – but there’s nothing here about hotels.” The idea that one could complete a degree in one field, and then embark upon a career in another field which might not be directly related comes as a shock. How could a person who studied finance or law then be accepted by a hotel group?

“I know there are some private universities that offer hotel management courses but they are expensive,” ventured another student. “I don’t think my parents would accept it.” Parental approval is essential, especially if that is where the financial support is coming from. One educator has mentioned in conversation concerning the Chinese education system that a degree course designated as ‘business management with a focus on hotels’ was far more successful than the same course designated as ‘hotel management’ – simply because the former sounds somehow better in a society where face matters.

“I don’t know how I could get into hotels if I wanted to,” was another comment. When employers develop graduate training schemes, they often visit schools or universities to attract recruits. It seems there is a lack of communication here, although as another student explained, “if hotels come to talk to us when we are 17, it’s already too late. We’ve already decided by then. They need to talk to us when we’re 13, but mainly they need to talk to our parents.”

Then what about internships, or part time work? When I was my students’ age, I worked in a hotel for about three years during school and then university holidays. “If I told my mother I wanted a part time job she would just tell me to study more instead,” was the response. Among the group of students as a whole, not one had a job. In Thailand, you will often see students working in restaurants part time – in fact they usually work in their school uniforms so it is clearly apparent that they are not full-time staff. “They are probably poor,” came the explanation. “They do it because they need the money.” But what about the valuable experience from working? “Study is more important.”

How does the idea of a gap year – as a western concept where the time can be spent traveling or gaining work experience – go down? “I just want to get my degree and get a good job and settle down,” said one. “It is a waste of time,” said another. “I would be a year behind all of my friends.” There was no dissent.

In conclusion, there is no shortage of young talent available, but most are looking for secure positions in fields and companies that will earn parental approval. They are currently largely unaware of the opportunities which might be available in the hospitality field, and they tend to decide upon their educational and career path at quite an early age. For the hotel sector, addressing these twin problems of ignorance and image will be a critical step to take in order to end the reliance on foreign managers and start using the excellent local human resources to their fullest potential.