Localisation of tourism workforce: Five reasons why it will remain an uphill task for a long time

By Hassan Saeed

Let me start with a disclaimer here: Some of what I am expressing here may be very unpopular depending on the reader but it is my opinion and lived experience.

Localisation is only possible up to an extent; authorities will have to work out the exact numbers and the timeframe. Fact is, we do not have the numbers to localise the entire workforce.

I understand the sentiments of those who disagree with me and I respect that. My opinion is the result of my own experience and what I keep seeing in resorts during my 30-year-long career.

I have worked very closely with young people for over a decade now and what I see is a huge gap between what these young people come to expect from their jobs in the industry and the everyday realities of life, career opportunities and working conditions at resorts.

Maldivians are historically very hardworking people. Our ancestors have survived through centuries of hardship on these small islands.

However, when it comes to employment in the tourism industry, we have not been as responsible as we should as a society. I am not blaming a section, a group, an institution or a particular politician or government for this; we are all collectively responsible for this predicament.

That said, almost all Maldivian General Managers I know are employed by local resort owners and their salaries are on par with that of the foreign GMs elsewhere. This gives people like me a lot of hope. Credit goes to them for the trust and confidence they have put in locals. It is a shame that big international brands who have benefited from their presence in the Maldives for over two decades have not developed General Managers and Resort Managers even for their own properties.

There are those among us who advocate for a global workforce for the tourism industry and that has some merit too. Global representation is fine BUT greater local participation and involvement, I would argue, is more important for the industry to become sustainable in the long run.

Back in the 80s, when tourism was dubbed as the ‘hen that lays golden eggs’, a UN expert commented that for the hen to keep laying eggs for as long as possible (meaning sustainability) it should not mess up its nest. His observation was that tourism was seen as an industry that exploits people and other resources. The benefits of tourism were not fully appreciated by the public.

The proposed amendment that mandates 60 per cent of what the amendment calls ‘is vazeefaa thah’ meaning senior management or leadership positions to Maldivians will be a good step forward but how effective it is, will depend on many things. The definition of ‘senior management’ has to be unambiguous. Implementation of such measures will require close monitoring.

Was the five-year preparation period based on any objective assessment? Or did the committee or the honourable member just pick a number? Any number that is not based on data/evidence will always be arbitrary. Ideally, the Majlis should look at a clear snapshot of the labour market as it is today and forecast the anticipated changes over the next 10 years.

A key question will be how many of these senior management positions can we fill for 140 resorts right now and over the next 5-10 years. Would we have about 600 career-minded hospitality professionals who fit the basic competency requirements for high-end resorts? If not, what plans do we have to develop them and fast-track graduates into management positions?

These are some basic questions. In addition, there are inherent systemic challenges within the industry that will require deliberate interventions to overcome them.

Systemic explicit and implicit bias preventing Maldivians from getting hired and getting promoted

Did you ever wonder why the teaching profession and nursing professions are predominantly female? Why most carpenters and engineers are male?

Through evolution, we have developed mental shortcuts known as heuristics to make our decision making easier and faster. These heuristics then result in us reaching judgements and conclusions based on first impressions. When a certain perception is widespread in a community, it results in stereotyping and generalising. If we collectively associate certain roles or professions with one gender or the other, we become implicitly biased.

This is what happens when you get two equally qualified individuals, one male, one female, and depending on the type of job/role being considered, research shows that we tend to favour one gender over the other regardless of the qualification. Most of us will not admit to this but this happens to all of us.

Some General Managers I have worked with are extremely positive about hiring Maldivian HoDs and some are not. Unfortunately, more General Managers doubt the capacity and potential of Maldivians and tend to favour those they knew in their previous postings and in many cases these happen to be expatriates.

In 2015, I travelled to eight atolls and spoke to hundreds of young women and men about employment in the resorts. What struck me immediately was the first impressions they gave, especially the boys: some of them had long hair, unkempt facial hair, wore flip-flops and had leather straps around their wrists. I did not find many who will fit the stereotypical ideal employee: well-groomed, well presented, dressed appropriately, ready with all the necessary papers. I would doubt if any person with conventional HR thinking would have found any of these boys worth hiring.

I ended up enrolling 18 of these boys and three girls in an apprenticeship programme and over 75 per cent of them were still working in the industry when Covid-19 hit tourism.

There are no easy solutions here and the process of de-programming our minds will be a slow process. Many companies have deliberate de-biasing built into the applicant screening process but some of these measures are designed to eliminate explicit bias, not implicit bias.

Shortage of General Managers, Resort Managers and Human Resource Managers

I got my first assignment as Resort Manager after nine years of work in the industry and after many detours and segues, I returned to the same position 25 years later.

On average, you would need about 10-15 years or more of service in the industry and at least five-eight years of experience as an HoD or in the ExCom to reach the General Manager position. There is no system in place to feed and create a pool from the bottom. There is always talk that ‘company x’ is developing Maldivian talent but that talent never gets to the top. They get stuck halfway through for some unknown reason.

Appointment of a General Manager is a matter of trust and confidence rather than an impressive resume. This is a catch-22 situation for Maldivians — lack of a significant number of notable General Managers after more than 40 years of resort operations leads to owners and corporate HRs to question the potential of Maldivian General Managers.

Some owners also think that Maldivian Resort Managers and General Managers lack international experience. For big brands, it is brand-experience.

It is catch-22 because we do not get considered for not having international and brand experience but how can one get experience if she/he is not considered for lower-level management in the first place?

Some brands have management fast-tracking programmes for graduates. Maybe this is something that could work and be helpful in producing Resort and General Managers in a shorter span of time.

Language is one criterion that a lot of Maldivian HoDs and managers find lacking when they apply for managerial positions. This again goes back to point one: Maldivians do not get to the top because their resume is deemed inferior simply on the basis of their nationality.

My assumption here is that more local General Managers, Resorts Managers and HR Managers will lead to more local HoDs who will then have the opportunity to develop and get promoted.

Lack of political will to change the status quo

A politician’s attention is always from one election to the other and no five-year plan can ever achieve localisation of the workforce to a meaningful degree.

Localising the tourism workforce requires commitment from all levels of government, civil service and society. It requires multi-pronged programmes aimed at youth development, school and community level awareness, mindset change, job centres, apprenticeships, scholarships, regulatory frameworks and incentive programs, all to work together towards a common goal.

There will be no immediate results, no credits that can be claimed in the short term except for the introduction or inauguration of a programme but the results of any such program will not be seen immediately.

Very few politicians are driven by sincere intentions of public service and being altruistic. Partisan politics and poorly conceived ideas can, in fact, turn out to be counterproductive. We have had an Employment Act for over a decade but the extent to which it had changed the condition of the employee or the level of protection it offers to the employer is still questionable.

Politics is mostly about rhetoric, PR stunts, drama and self-aggrandisement. Most politicians use policies as pacifiers to console the public and most of the time, these are quick fixes, not long term solutions.

General perception of the Maldivian public towards the industry

This industry is still not given first preference by the majority of school leavers. Even parents of my generation who benefited from this industry and still depending on this industry, consciously or unconsciously nudge their children towards other professions such as medicine, law, engineering or education. We (the majority of the population) still hold jobs in this industry in low esteem.

I keep repeating the same story of harassment we received as hotel school students back in 1989 when everyone thought work at resorts involved cooking, feeding (restaurant service) and cleaning toilets (housekeeping) for tourists. Hotel school was a place you go to learn cooking.

Sadly, not much has changed in terms of public opinion in the past 30 years. Teachers and parents still tell their kids that failure in their studies will leave them with only two options: fishing or resort work!

It is true that if someone wants to succeed in this industry, they will have to start from dishwashing, cleaning and doing all sorts of manual work and for parents, they just cannot come to terms with their beloved child doing any of these things that we as a society have to relegate to a different class of humans.

Self-discipline and attitude towards work among Maldivian talent pool

This is the elephant in the room and no one will ever admit to this. I have been criticised before and probably will be criticised again for saying this.

My opinion is based on my experience with both Maldivians and expatriates for over 30 years. I spent some of these years in HR and training and have come across many young Maldivians with tremendous potential. Some of them are currently in responsible positions but some of them think they deserve better positions for no obvious reasons.

In this industry, you have to start at an entry-level position to fully understand and develop an appreciation for those who do the basic work. This helps build character and makes them more empathetic as leaders who will have greater career success than their less empathetic counterparts.

Unfortunately, we do not like doing manual work and have relegated it to the foreigners.

“Job hopping” is one of the accusations that HR Managers level against Maldivians. This used to be true to an extent but is changing fast. We used to move from one job to the other without much care, looking for the highest service charge. When we want to move, we sometimes do not do it in a professional manner by giving proper notice. Some just go missing, go on leave and do not return. This drives HoDs mad and their frustration is understandable.

This, therefore, becomes one of the reasons that managements use to justify hiring more expatriates.

Maybe we are victims of our own biases but this issue is too important to be swept under the carpet. We need to discuss and investigate it further. If we want meaningful change, we need to work together and be willing to endure a difficult journey. Sometimes we are part of the problem and not talking about it and avoiding the topic does not make the problem go away.

Our reluctance to do manual work — stewarding, cleaning, landscaping and gardening, which are essential jobs that make up the bulk of the workforce– will not help change the numbers in our favour anytime soon. We have to keep in mind that certain types of work like massage and body works do not generate much interest in the local communities.

If we want to change the situation, at an individual level, more of us need to become reliable and professional as employees, be willing to take up entry-level positions and look for long term career advancement.

At an institutional level, a lot remains to be done to change public opinion, get facts out to the public, run social marketing campaigns to change perception and mindset and develop young people at school/community level so that they grow up eager to explore the many possibilities that this industry offer.

Note: This op-ed was originally published on LinkedIn by Hassan Saeed, a highly experienced hotel/resort manager from the Maldives who currently serves as the Resort Manager at Dhigali Maldives, a luxury resort in the northern Raa atoll. To view the original article, please follow this link.

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