The Changing “Ask” of Labor and How Our Industry is Reacting

Hello class … tell me what you did this summer! Your paper is due at the end of the week.

Yes, folks, Labor Day has arrived.

I see kids standing at the bus stop, many of them in their new warm clothing although it’s still 90 degrees here in Northern Nevada. We’re taking our last swims in Tahoe before the water induces instant hypothermia. Oh, and I just visited a few of the big “big box stores,” and they’ve already got their Halloween displays out (and some, Christmas). Yes, sock-wearing time is headed our way. I’m not ready.

However, instead of me bemoaning the end of summer, let’s talk about Labor Day. Thank you to all those working today so your guests can play. Let’s talk about why the people who aren’t reading this newsletter decided to pursue a career in another industry or not come back to work … at all. Meaning, where did you go, anyway? Let’s talk about what the gaming and hospitality industry needs to do to meet the needs of all team members.

BAM! A Collective Eye-Opening

Some of you might find it cringey to bring up “COVID” in 2023 … put that damn word to bed, why don’t you … let’s move on, for God’s sake, but like it or not, it has continued to impact not only our psyches but our businesses.

Undoubtedly, before the pandemic, attracting and retaining talent was a growing issue based on several factors … but COVID collided with a multi-generational workforce and BAM! It was a collective eye-opening. The experience brought forth life-altering questions from the entire labor force of all ages. Our teams went through a historic period: we were home during shutdown, we experienced loss and change and many of us returned with a new attitude and a new ‘why’.

It’s also crazy to think that many young people entered the market when working remotely was more common than working on-site (think the tech-industry)! Now, many companies are “flipping the script” – eliminating remote work. Could this be a good thing for the hospitality industry? Perhaps.

What I want to know: Is our business genuinely addressing the needs of our entire workforce?

I checked in with two industry experts: Tal Moore, Director of Development, National Native American Human Resources Association (NNAHRA), and Ben Farber, President and Owner of Bristol Associates.

CF: Tal, in your work with NNAHRA and your extensive Tribal property experience, you have insight into the challenges that Tribal casinos are facing in attracting and retaining talent in gaming and hospitality. What’s top of mind for you?

TM: I think the talent acquisition conversation has quieted down a bit in the open media, yet the challenge still remains in terms of hiring and retention challenges. Candidates know that they can demand the higher end of the compensation range even if not fully qualified for the position. I find that Tribes offering competitive wages and flexibility in schedules are winners in the recruitment game, especially for the front-line team member.

The next phase of employee attention is retention. Tribes providing strong orientation and onboarding will retain a greater share of new hires over those that have the old “they know the job” or the “sink or swim” adage. Then, you’re not done yet! What is the development phase of retention in both a professional and personal range in team member support? This is also the time to think of the benefits strategy to retain employees.  

CF: Ben, you represent the third generation of family ownership of Bristol Associates, specializing in recruiting key executives and management in the gaming and hospitality industry. You also have produced the Casino Gaming Executive Satisfaction Survey for the last 20 years. You offer a different perspective than Tal. What challenges do you see placing executive candidates in the gaming industry?  

BF: The current challenge is that we’re seeing a bit of a stalemate between client companies that are looking to hire and the candidates. Most companies throughout the industry, in late 2020, 2021, even early 2022, were meeting the demands of candidates who were pushing back across the board. At that time, companies were more flexible and more willing to negotiate because they wanted to make sure they had people on board to maintain their level of service. For the past year and a half, that ship has been slowing down, and at times heading in the wrong direction. Our challenge as a search firm is how we still find quality talent that is interested and excited about an opportunity.

Candidates have worked really hard to get to this point of progress in terms of compensation, benefits, work-life balance and PTO, and they don’t want to go back to work for just a slightly better opportunity. Expecting an employed executive to move for a lateral position with another company, good luck! That’s reduced our qualified pool.

When you take in all these variables, then throw in another long-standing challenge of many companies sticking to the same compensation ranges that they were paying 10, 15, and sometimes 20 years ago. It really handcuffs us. Overall, compensation is not keeping up with inflation.

CF: Tal, when I entered the workforce in the late-80’s, my goal was to be independent, move out on my own, buy a new car, and have some security as I pursued my dream job. Buying a home was very doable and in-reach; I just had to put in my hours and show up, 9-5, M-F. I never negotiated for flex time, asked for career path development, or a more generous PTO plan – I think I would have been laughed out of the job interview.    

 In 2023, what are the goals of our current workforce, and what key areas do our industry need to re-evaluate to attract and retain team members that are coming up? Have priorities changed?  

TM: In brief, I offer three key areas of focus: Compensation, Benefits and Engagement. True, perhaps the same three themes as when I started my career way back in 1987! Yet the expectations are different in that the younger entry-level employee has read and heard over and over and over…” it is about me and my needs over the needs of the organization.”

We have always expected to be paid for the work we do, though years ago, we may have accepted a position thinking that if we work hard and the money will come. Today, many candidates expect to be paid at a higher entry-level as they bring the skill to the job immediately. Benefits are also in the forefront of many younger employees today yet may have shifted in what those benefits are. We see more immediate value benefits such as time off, flexible schedules, and hybrid remote work over the “traditional” health benefits. Today, we need to offer mental health support, assistance in getting access to quality care as well as a 401k or other retirement benefits where they see gains in real time vs. an annual statement.

CF: Ben, you mentioned right after Covid, companies were more flexible in their negotiations. From your perspective, are certain things being asked of now that were never asked for before?

BF: Yes, across the board. And so, to your point in the eighties, you didn’t even know you could ask for these things. I felt like that was true even still when I started in 2003. Now, people are asking for anything and everything. The interesting thing to me is what gets put in writing. I’ve seen this trend where companies have become more forgiving to work-life balance or PTO, but it’s an off-contract agreement, solidified by a handshake. This is how our culture is; if you come in and perform, we’ll be flexible with you and take your requests on a case-by-case basis.

There’s a trust factor there. Before, many companies were so steadfast in their beliefs – projecting an attitude of, “Working from home is ridiculous, not at our company. That’s what PTO is to be used for.” That philosophy really began to scare off quality talent. Companies that have been willing to, even off paper, be more forgiving and understanding, have had an easier time with hiring and coming to agreements.

CF : Tal, for current and older employees, are they asking for different benefits?  

TM: A newer trend for the older employee is part-time vs. full-time work, especially those that may have retired and returning to the job market. Offering paid leave for new grandparents is taking hold in some markets. Another benefit that pleases many employees of all generations? Paid pet insurance!

CF: Ben, speaking of working from home, do you even think that’s a possibility in the gaming and hospitality industry for management? Most executives put in 50-60 hours on-site. Have you seen any data that they are working at home more?

BF: It depends on the position, the company, and the location. We have contacts in the Midwest who are not driving in the snow to sit in an office and work on a computer, especially when they can do that at home as they are not interacting with co-workers during that time.

It has forced companies’ hands in a good way. Managers feared remote work, and they asked, “How can I manage my team? How can I connect with my team?” In turn, it forced management to trust their team more. I can attest to that from my experience working with our Bristol team. Nobody wants to be micromanaged, whether you are working together under the same roof or remotely. No matter where you are, the time spent and purpose of connecting with your peers is essentially the same. I think people may underestimate how much of an impact remote work has made on employee satisfaction. Employees are much happier. Whether it’s friends, spouses, or co-workers – space and trust are necessary in order to preserve quality, long-term relationships.

CF: Tal, are there Tribal gaming organizations that are really making significant changes and re-writing the book on front-line positions? And if so, can you share a few examples.

TM: Gila River Gaming has a successful wellness program that promotes physical, medical, and spiritual health. Valley View Casino and Hotel has a robust succession program for tribal and non-tribal members. The Kalispel Tribes has developed their Kalispel Leadership Academy and created an on-site two-day annual conference for all supervisors and above. The Academy also facilities several development sessions throughout the year, with many sessions preented by managers and directors.  

CF: Ben, regarding your annual report, is there any data that stood out for you in 2022?

BF: Yes, back to compensation – it was not the top priority for quite some time. It was consistently ranked as second since 2018 and then it just went back to first last year. That goes back to what I said about compensation ranges not keeping up with inflation. When people returned to the job market post-pandemic, they were evaluating their careers and the job market in a new light; perhaps they were going without money for some time because they were unemployed. Compensation has become the most important factor again.

CF: Ben, I think people “woke up” and thought, maybe I do deserve more, or my priorities have changed, or my company isn’t up with the current times of what my position is valued at. Right?

BF: Yes. I’m with you on that. People’s skillsets in the workforce should be valued more now than they were five years ago, even three years ago. At the same time, health should still be our number one priority because good health ultimately is wealth.

CF: Ben, what other trends have you seen in the newest reporting data?

BF: In line with Tal’s findings, executives prefer their organizations to have employee wellness programs. Fifty-four percent of our respondents wanted health and fitness programs. That was at the top, which is a new trend. Turns out we are moving in the direction of prioritizing health and wellness.

CF: Tal, what is one area in the process that you think can be improved right now?

TM: In close, regarding the question of talent acquisition, we must have a dedicated team in HR to support the logistical process with the critical partnership of the hiring managers for the determination of fit and assess the applied skill level of applicants. I am always dismayed when I learn someone applies for a position and their application is in the inbox for days on end. If we are serious about hiring for preference, skill and fit, the applicant review process must be daily. Waiting even a week risks the loss of quality candidates in this competitive market. A KPI NNAHRA recommends is the measurement of the internal time to post a position to application review to that of interview to time of screening to hire to orientation to on-boarding.  

CF: Ben, honestly, how innovative can casinos and hospitality firms be given that most team members must be on-site? Can organizations create career paths for a beverage server or a dishwasher? Are they looking at cross-training to make a front-line employee’s job more compelling? Would someone in that position want more flexibility? Perhaps they could work three hours, pick up their kids from school, and come back? 

BF: Well, to your point, you can’t serve beverages or wash dishes from home. However, it makes sense to create a career path for those individuals who aspire to be in leadership roles. Reason being, executives tend to have more flexibility when it comes to work/life balance, i.e., administrative duties can be completed nights or weekends in order to accommodate picking up children from school mid-afternoon. Such a program might give front-line employees more incentive to work towards that next level. We do see some cross training occur. Those individuals tend to be hand-selected by their bosses based on how they have already performed in their current role. Most everyone wants more flexibility. Conversations like these will only help to improve employee satisfaction.

Special thanks to both Tal Moore and Ben Farber for their insights for this special Labor Day Issue. Want more? Check out the resources of the National Native American Human Resources Association (NNAHRA). Visit Bristol and Associates to find out more about their annual Casino Gaming Executive Satisfaction Survey and sign up for their newsletter. Register for Raving NEXT: Indian Gaming Strategic Operations and Leadership Conference to be part of many pivotal discussions, including labor and Tribal member development programs.   

On behalf of the TG&H and Raving teams, thank you for all you do on Labor Day and every day!

All the best,

Christine Faria

Executive Editor, Tribal Gaming and Hospitality Magazine

PS – I always want to hear your stories … drop me a line anytime to talk about what innovative work you are doing in our industry and the heroes surrounding you.