OCEAN CITY – Over 3,000 people, or roughly three times the usual number, streamed through the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce’s annual job fair last Saturday, perhaps signaling an opportunity for the resort business community to strengthen its workforce this year for what may be a trying summer season.
Greater Ocean City Chamber Executive Director Melanie Pursel said this week a little more than 3,000 potential workers attended the job fair last Saturday, including over 900 who pre-registered for the event. An hour into the fair, chamber officials were out of registration forms and scrambled to the temporary copy center in the convention center building to print more. Similarly, by mid-morning, many of the employers who set up shop at the job fair were out of the standard applications and also flooded the copy center for more.
Typically, the annual job fair draws somewhere between 800 to 1,000 potential employees each year, and business owners and managers use the event to fill in the rank and file positions on their staffs. In most years, the potential employees fill out dozens of applications for different positions and later pick and choose where they want to work, but in a faltering economy with massive layoffs and furloughs, there were more people looking for work then jobs available, giving employers the upper hand this year.
Business owners might have the luxury of picking and choosing their employees from a larger potential workforce this year and the result could be a bonus for the resort community. Instead of hiring warm bodies to fill positions, employers can search through stacks of applicants to find the people that best fit their needs. The result could be a stronger, better-educated and more dedicated workforce as another summer season approaches.
Francis Scott Key Family Resort owner Anne Marie Dickerson did not have a booth set up at the job fair, but she was in the building for the Ocean City Hotel-Motel/-Restaurant Association trade show. Dickerson said she saw first hand the frenzy at the job fair and hoped it signaled a change in the potential workforce this year. She said she has already seen it at her motel in West Ocean City.
“It’s a different sort of applicant this year,” she said. “The thing I’m finding out first hand and from talking to people is we have a real opportunity hear to strengthen our labor force this year.”
Pursel said an online survey of chamber members after the job fair seemed to indicate most were in agreement about success of the event, both from a quantity and quality standpoint.
“Most people felt it was very successful,” she said. “They were impressed, first of all, with the volume, but more importantly, they were impressed with the quality of the applicants. This can be a great opportunity for Ocean City to really strengthen our workforce at a time when it is getting more and more competitive.”
At time when there is great uncertainty about the summer season, given everything that is going on with the economy, a stronger labor pool might give the resort area a competitive edge over its neighbors in the tourism business. According to Dickerson, the challenge for resort business owners is to take advantage of the opportunity.
“If we’re smart and we take the time to sort through this employee pool and find the right people for the right jobs, we have an opportunity to have a memorable season,” she said. “Maybe less people are coming, we don’t know yet, but maybe they have a more memorable vacation experience and leave with a great impression of Ocean City. It could be a season where less is more.”
In most years, the front lines of the hospitality industry are occupied by foreign workers, who despite their hard work often have communication issues with resort guests, or American college students, who, with obvious exceptions are more interested in the summer lifestyle than their employment. The formula works for the most part, but with jobs at a premium and more potential workers than spots available, the faces on the front lines could change this year.
“It’s a different pool of potential employees this year,” said Dickerson. “We’re seeing people applying for jobs who you wouldn’t necessarily see applying for them in the past. They might have been laid off or are looking to make ends meet with a second job. What we might see happening is people with Master’s degrees working behind hotel front desks or waiting tables or bartending.”
Dickerson added the local community could end up being a valuable resource as employers look to fill their ranks this year, which would only improve the quality of the workforce.
“People are looking more at hiring locals, employees that are from the area and know the area and take pride in their community,” she said. “Those are the people we want on the front lines of our hospitality industry.”
Also, with the economy staggering and jobs at a premium, summer workers might not be as nonchalant about their employment this year, according to Pursel.
“I think what we’ll see is more stability in the workforce,” she said. “Jobs aren’t as abundant, and if somebody has a good job, they are going to try to hold on to it. You won’t see people jumping from job to job over the course of the summer. If somebody gets a decent job, they’re going to want to hold on to it.”