Star 200: Southern Arizona's resorts need educated workers

Technical expertise can also be vital for some tourism firms
2013-04-28T00:00:00Z Star 200: Southern Arizona's resorts need educated workersDoug Kreutz Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 28, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The tourism industry in Tucson relies on a diverse mix of workers - from the people who clean hotel rooms to mountain guides who lead visitors on technical rock climbs.

Finding workers with just the right skills often poses a challenge. But this year, as the economy is perking up after years of recession, it's getting harder to attract qualified employees for some jobs, says an industry spokesman.

"With the recession, it made it easier to find workers for whatever jobs were available" because out-of-work people weren't picky, said Brent DeRaad, president of the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"As the economy improves, some places have difficulty finding qualified workers," DeRaad said. "For example, one area affected is waitstaff. Being able to find housekeeping staff and other service employees can be difficult as well."

College degrees valued

Employers in the tourism industry here - from resort hotels to tour and guiding services - say education and technical skills often are key components in the search for qualified employees.

"When hiring managers, including entry level managers, we look for continued education past high school - and those with college degrees are sought after first," said Jonathan Litvack, general manager of The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa. "Outside of that, for hourly positions we'll look for some type of educational connection or previous experience that will tie into the position they are seeking."

Litvack said it's sometimes necessary to be patient and cast a wide net when searching for ideal employees.

"Within the last 24 months, positions have been steadily increasing their 'time to fill,' " he said. "Being part of a worldwide company, we never limit our recruitment efforts to a local market. Sometimes it helps to bring in outside influences."

In a very different corner of the industry is Jason Mullins, owner of Rocks and Ropes of Tucson Inc. The company, which operates two rock-climbing gyms in Tucson, also offers a climbing guide service. Clients include tourists as well as some area residents.

Technical expertise is essential for anyone employed as a guide, Mullins said.

"We have nine single-pitch instructors (SPIs) certified by the American Mountain Guides Association on staff that we have fostered, developed and supported in-house over the years," he said. "A fair amount of climbing experience is a start, but all of those that take the certification test have been surprised at how rigorous and taxing it is."

MENTORING WORKERS

Apprenticeships, intern programs and mentoring by experienced employees help many tourist-industry businesses craft ideally qualified workers.

"Every year, we have several culinary interns who come to us as apprentices. They work for us and learn the craft," said Beth-el Klein, human-resources director at Loews Ventana Canyon resort.

"We do other programs with high school students," Klein said. "We've brought some of them in to observe or do some work with a few of our departments to get an idea of what our industry is about."

Mullins, of Rocks and Ropes, said experienced climbing guides on his staff provide invaluable technical training to newcomers.

"We regularly mentor aspirant guides with preparatory training and subsidize their certification tests," he said. "It's good for business, their future and the industry."

Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at dkreutz@azstarnet.com or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz

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