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The Role of Newcomers in the Path to Recovery for the Accommodation and Food Industry

The accommodation and food sector was hit hard by the pandemic and is still struggling to recover. According to the Canadian Tourism Labour Market Snapshot, the accommodation and food services sector has suffered the greatest job losses (123,700 jobs) of the tourism labour force as a result of pandemic-related closures of the industry and decreased demand, making up 90.6% of unemployment in the whole tourism and hospitality industry.

One of the major barriers to the recovery of the accommodation and food sector from these massive job losses is the difficulty in recruiting new talent to fill the worker shortage. According to research from the Ontario Tourism Education Corporation (OTEC) on employment change by industry, from 2019 to 2021, during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the accommodation and food services sector was found to have the greatest difficulty recruiting, with a 20.8% loss in employment. The sector’s struggle to retain skilled labour reflects this, with 40.4% of businesses reporting difficulties in retaining workers as many migrate from hospitality and tourism roles to other sectors. The sector, like other sectors, is also undergoing significant transformation as a result of digitizations with more and more roles requiring specialized skills and training.

The Role of Newcomers in the Accommodation and Food Sector

Before the pandemic, women and newcomers made up the bulk of the labour force in this industry, as the jobs in the sector are often accepted as precarious work with a low barrier to entry that vulnerable populations use as a foot-in-the-door for other opportunities. Newcomers in Canada are more likely to work in the accommodation sector, where their share of employment reaches 33% compared to the overall labour force (28%) in 2023.

However, there were significant challenges for newcomers working in the accommodation and food sector. Newcomers often work in back-of-house jobs, such as cooks and light-duty cleaners, instead of front-of-house jobs such as servers and front desk clerks with higher wages and better working conditions. The combination of poor working conditions and the demands of the COVID-19 lockdowns may have made the accommodation and food sector less attractive to newcomers.

Newcomer perspectives: Challenges

Efforts have been made to make the sector more attractive to workers. Given the intense competition for labour, average hourly wages in the food services sector increased by 9.5% between April 2021 and 2022, surpassing the average industry-wide increase of 4.3%.
To better understand the drivers and impediments to attracting and retaining workers in the sector and the role of knowledge, skills, and services, Future Skills supported Skills for Change and the Diversity Institute to collaborate on an exploratory study interviewing newcomers in the accommodation and food services industry.

Newcomers indicated that they had limited knowledge of the Canadian job market, the food and accommodation industry and advancement opportunities. Many of those interviewed relied heavily on friends and relatives to secure employment. As one newcomer said, “I found my job through a friend, through his family, but distant. He worked here too. So he introduced me and I think he’s among the reasons I was employed because he guided me through how to talk to the manager while coming to apply for my work because he knows the manager as he’s worked here for around six years. I think he also put in a good word for me.”
Language barriers were also an issue both in terms of accessing a range of employment opportunities as well as training and career counselling which are generally delivered in French or English.

Many newcomers face difficulties accessing training, further education, and skills development opportunities. They often lack the resources and the time needed to invest in these activities that could help boost their career prospects.

Discrimination, particularly against racialized people, remains a significant barrier for newcomers striving for career advancement. This discrimination comes from both employers and customers. Newcomer workers noted that discrimination in the workplace makes them feel disconnected as they struggle to find a sense of belonging. In the interviews, participants expressed their experiences of being treated differently from their Canadian colleagues, further exacerbating their feelings of exclusion. One newcomer shared, “I also face discrimination because I’m Black Canadian. I’m not white. So sometimes, I’m looked upon as a fool or as somebody not that qualified. I do my job well, so I don’t expect to be looked down upon. [S]ometimes I am looked down upon and I think it’s because of my skin colour.” This differentiated conduct based on race and newcomer status points to an unfair treatment that can significantly influence newcomers’ mental health and motivation to advance their careers.

Some respondents also indicated that coworkers and friends within their communities discouraged them from investing their efforts in skills development. Friends and family members who prioritize immediate financial stability over long-term career growth may lead newcomers to settle for survival jobs that do not align with their potential or goals. During the interviews, several newcomers expressed the internal conflict they experienced when balancing their desire to invest in professional development training with the fear of losing their close network and connection to their communities. For example, one participant said, “I do many things to build my career. I do save, I do learn from others, and I do online classes just to build my own career. My challenge in building my career is that some of my friends advise me not to do what I want. I don’t like it because they do discourage me sometimes.” Others shared examples where they were laughed at and faced skepticism from their friends for prioritizing their career growth. These friends were important in their lives, and their opinions weighed heavily, making the decision even more challenging.

Newcomer perspectives: Opportunities

While the interviews mostly highlighted precarious working conditions, many respondents expressed general satisfaction with their work in the accommodation and food services sector.

Many participants regarded it as an industry that offers opportunities for newcomers, despite the continued challenges regarding access to information about employment opportunities. One participant shared, “I would say it’s an amazing place. It’s an amazing sector to work in. I would advise anyone migrating to Canada to give it a try. Even if it’s not the particular work they want to do, as we know sometimes things don’t go as planned. But I am proud of working in this industry. ” These stories shared by newcomers highlight the opportunity to share more information about opportunities in the industry.

Some respondents saw potential within the accommodation and food services sector and aspired to take on leadership roles within their organizations. Over 60% of the newcomer workers who were interviewed expressed a clear ambition to become business owners within the next five years.

Next Steps: Recovery and a Path Forward

Canada’s accommodation and food services businesses were among those most affected by the pandemic. With restrictions lifted and travel resuming many now face significant labour shortages. The industry has long relied heavily on newcomer talent but the study shows there are barriers, particularly in a competitive market. Newcomers working in the sector revealed several barriers they face but also their l aspirations for skills development and advancement. Nevertheless, many expressed satisfaction with their roles, suggesting that there are opportunities to provide skills training, development and support to help them grow and advance. Some employers are seizing these opportunities with innovative programs to help upskill and support their newcomer employees.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint, official policy or position of the Future Skills Centre or any of its staff members or consortium partners.