March 22, 2008

S'pore hotels facing struggle to retain staff

New players putting squeeze on older ones; job offers also coming from abroad

By Lim Wei Chean

THOSE employed in the hospitality industry are well known for playing the game of musical chairs, where a waiter in one hotel today could be serving in another across the road the next day.

But the game is hotting up, hoteliers complain, not just among the rank and file, but management staff as well.

Staff turnover for this sector, according to the Manpower Ministry, was 4.3 per cent a month last year, almost twice that for the wholesale and retail, and the financial services industries.

With this year's bonuses already paid out during the Chinese New Year period, hoteliers are bracing themselves for more staff resignations.

Grand Mercure Roxy Singapore's general manager Kevin Bossino said his February resignation rate was 3.2 per cent, up from December's 1.2 per cent.

Over at Royal Plaza on Scotts, general manager Patrick Fiat said more than 35 per cent of his 370-member staff quit last year. In 2006, annual turnover was 16 per cent.

He added: 'The year has barely begun and I've already lost three of my top guys: my director of human resources, financial controller and executive chef.'

The reasons: the tight labour market and the opening of new hotels, including upmarket ones which young people are keen to work in.

Singapore has about 230 hotels employing 27,000 workers. Ten new properties opening this year will require at least another 1,000 workers.

Since January last year, businesses in the service sector have been allowed to hire foreigners to make up 45 per cent of their staff. And these are the ones who usually stay on, said Mr Bossino.

Low pay and long hours - the perennial bugbears - are reasons young Singaporeans jump ship at the first sign of better prospects.

Although average monthly real earnings per worker in the hotel and restaurant industry have gone up by 2.3 per cent to $1,393 last year, the figure is still lower than the 4 per cent average increase to $3,645 for all sectors.

The newer hotels may not pay much more, but they offer young people bragging rights of being among the pioneers.

Mr Randall Ong, 23, who is joining St Regis next month, is taking a pay cut and a downgrade from restaurant captain to waiter. He asked that his current employer not be named.

He said: 'The hotel brand is quite important. I will also get the chance to learn something new.'

To keep pace, hotels have been spending more to retain their staff.

Orchard Hotel, for example, paid out bonuses of up to three months this year - the highest in the hotel's 28-year history. It also raised recreation allowances so that department heads can organise more team activities such as barbecues.

Still, such moves do not prevent top and middle-level staff from being head-hunted.

Singaporeans are in demand by hotels in China and Macau because they can speak both English and Mandarin. Several hotel management staff, all of whom declined to be named, say it is common to receive cold calls for jobs abroad.

The good news is that the polytechnics, Institute of Technical Education and the Singapore International Hotel and Tourism College have increased their intakes to train more students for the industry.

But with the two integrated resorts opening by 2010, the frenzy to hire staff will only get worse, hoteliers predict.

Orchard Hotel general manager Rene Teuscher said: 'It is up to hotels to do more to retain employees so they realise it is better to stay.'

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