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Tourism: A Pathway to Job Creation and Workforce Development

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Paul H. Jennings

This article presents evidence that the tourism industry provides opportunities for job creation and workforce development beyond what is commonly understood in economic development circles. In this light, state and local policymakers should examine these opportunities more closely and place greater emphasis on supporting tourism growth and expanding workforce development initiatives targeting this critical industry.

Tourism and Job Creation 

Smeltzer augustAlthough national job growth has accelerated over the past few months, Washington Post editor Jim Tankersly reports that some economists have referred to the 2010-13 period as a “jobless recovery,” where the gross national product (GNP) has increased, but job creation has been rather dismal. This has not been the case for the tourism industry. According to a promotional publication by the U.S. Travel Association, since the recovery began in March 2010, the tourism industry has created more than 440,000 new jobs, making up 93 percent of the jobs lost during the recession compared to 74 percent for the rest of the economy. During this period, tourism added jobs at a 20 percent faster rate than the rest of the economy. In total, direct spending on travel supports 7.5 million American jobs or 7 percent of total private sector employment. Indirect and induced impacts support an additional 6.9 million jobs, for a total of 14.4 million American jobs. Only five of the 20 major industries employ more people than tourism. It’s important to note that the tourism industry includes a wide range of jobs, from executive to entry level; skills, from customer service to engineering; and sectors, including hospitality, entertainment and transportation. 

Tourism and Workforce Development 

Numbers do not tell the whole story about the importance and potential of the tourism industry relative to workforce development. The U.S. Travel Association maintains that the tourism industry provides a pathway into the workforce for young adults and persons without higher education. This pathway has been especially important during and after the Great Recession which hit young adults and the undereducated especially hard. A report on the economic impact of travel by the U.S. Travel Association suggests that these two groups accounted for 85 percent of almost 13 million unemployed Americans and have an unemployment rate that is double the rate of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Further, Greg Adkins, president of the Tennessee Hospitality Association, stated in a 2014 interview that the tourism industry provides transitional work for displaced workers, students pursuing education and persons seeking part-time work for a variety of reasons. Findings by the U.S. Travel Association, for example, indicate that of the 5.6 million workers who are working part-time because they are pursuing education, 1.8 million are employed by the leisure and hospitality sector. The tourism pathway to employment is significant because of its potential to provide entry level workers the skills that today’s employers are seeking, and in many cases, having difficulty finding. Such skills include the ability to work as part of a team, make decisions and solve problems, and communicate verbally, according to Forbes’ staffer Susan Adams. These skills, along with a positive attitude, are important components of the customer service ethic that is critical, not only to the tourism industry, but to every economic sector.

In a 2014 interview with Susan Whitaker, Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, affirms that those employees who develop foundational tourism skills have the potential to advance in their current industry or move into other industries. A U.S. Travel Association report on launching careers, for example, disclosed that 19 percent of respondents had their first job in the tourism industry and 50 percent had worked in the tourism industry at one time during their career.

Some communities and schools currently help students advance their skills in critical tourism and hospitality areas. Thirty high schools in Tennessee, for example, participate in a culinary and management program that helps students gain certification demonstrating their understanding of food safety and preparation, as well as the fundamental importance of timeliness, consistent performance and cleanliness. During his interview, Adkins noted that one east Tennessee high school reports that the 70 students participating in its program had a 100 percent graduation rate and found placement in entry level positions. In another example, the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau provides annual hospitality training for front-line service employees in the hospitality & tourism industry. At this training event, as described in The Chattanoogan, attendees include the front-line staff of area attractions, hotels, restaurants and retail stores, bus drivers, taxi & limousine drivers, police officers, parking lot attendants, parks and recreation staff and all others that interact with visitors.

Need for Greater Emphasis on Workforce Development in the Tourism Industry 

In conclusion, states and communities could greatly benefit by viewing the tourism industry as the significant economic development opportunity that it is. The Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, for example, reported $26.4 billion in Tennessee travel and tourism output in 2012 (includes direct and indirect impact), a 5.1 percent increase from 2011. In addition, tourism employee payroll grew by 3.7 percent in 2012, reaching $5.7 billion. Nineteen of Tennessee’s 95 counties received over $100 million in domestic traveler expenditures in 2012, with spending directly supporting 1,000 or more jobs in 12 of 95 counties

Although the economic impact of the tourism industry is impressive, it’s the workforce development opportunities that could offer states and communities a lifeline to entry level jobs for our young adult and undereducated populations. Such opportunities, of course, would address not only a critical economic problem, but also the social problems associated with unemployment. In her interview, Whitaker observed that by creating robust career pathways for the wide range of jobs in the tourism industry, and promoting these pathways to high school students and others seeking employment, states and communities could have a significant impact on this critical issue. This impact could be further enhanced by descriptions of how entry level experience in the tourism industry also provides opportunities for advancement into other industries that value customer service, teamwork, communications and problem-solving.

Specific recommendations that would help states and communities take advantage of the current and potential impacts of workforce development in the tourism industry include: conducting studies that would drill down more deeply into the tourism industry workforce, training needs, advancement opportunities and success stories; strengthening and promoting career pathways in the tourism industry; increasing job training funds that are available to incumbent tourism employees; and developing initiatives to promote tourism entrepreneurship as an employment option.


Author: Paul H. Jennings, Ph.D. serves as executive director of the Center for Industrial Services (UT CIS), an agency of the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service. The mission of UT CIS is to “Deliver Solutions that help Tennessee businesses grow, succeed and create high quality jobs.” UT CIS solutions include a range of consulting and training services that help business and industry address performance, growth and sustainability needs. Jennings can be reached at [email protected]tennessee.edu.

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