FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – As travel rebounds from the slow early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, airports continue to grapple with staffing shortages.
“As we are coming out of the pandemic the passengers are certainly coming back to the airport,” said Mark Gale, CEO and director of aviation at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. “We are seeing the numbers in the airport but we haven’t seen the numbers on the employees’ side.”
Gale spoke with Local 10 News from a job fair the airport hosted Wednesday in Sunrise, where more than two dozen employers hoped to find candidates to fill more than 800 available positions, ranging from retail and restaurants to ground transportation.
“Clearly the pandemic has caused a lot of changes in the workplace. We have seen folks who decided to do different things with their lives,” Gale said. “We are going to see a huge uptick in travel as we get closer to the end of the year, and all of our business partners who work with us at the airport are going to need additional help.
“The holiday season is just around the corner and we know that the airport is going to remain very, very busy as we get into Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now is the time they need to get people in, get them trained, get them ready for the holiday season.”
Jobseeker Shanna Senior-Tracey worked in the healthcare industry before the pandemic. She now owns a small events business but looking to switch industries and secure more income.
“I am a veteran and I was sent here by the VA,” she said at the job fair. “I was excited because it was for the airlines and I am interested in working for the airlines.”
Mary Morrissey of FedEx said they’ve been seeing “people looking for second jobs, people looking for primary jobs, people looking for benefits, people looking for tuition reimbursement.”
Kevin Perez currently works in the food distribution industry but attended the job fair to explore new opportunities. He said jobs with the Transportation Security Administration “really got my attention.”
TSA has been hosting hiring events across the country, even promoting open positions on Twitter and, for some positions, offering $1,000 signing bonuses to fill vacancies at several airports. (The bonus is paid out in two $500 increments. One at the start of employment and one at the 6-month mark.)
It’s not just airports. The hospitality industry is also short-staffed, said Peter Ricci, head of Florida Atlantic University’s hospitality and tourism management program.
“A lot of companies have already rushed to raise entry-level wages to be competitive and try to get some people back to the workforce but that’s not the answer,” he said. “The answer is maybe a more flexible schedule situation, better benefits, better career pathing.”
The need for workers remains even after Florida ended enhanced unemployment benefits.
“The assistance programs are pretty much gone, but there is not a week that goes by that I am not getting pleaded for jobs,” Ricci said. “We are still down thousands and thousands of people.
“A chunk retired, there’s another chunk that is still staying home with family. We did of course lose some people from COVID, and lately, there’s been a tremendous surge in guest aggressiveness that has turned a lot of people off to retail and hospitality and service jobs. A lot of people have told us they have moved into call centers, they have moved into gig work, they’ve moved into remote work that they can do for home whereas operations inside a hotel or a Target or an airport, TSA, you have to be there. You can’t TSA job remote, so they have been absorbed to a tremendous extent that I could have never imagined.”
Ricci added: “When they were saying everyone will be back to work, they are lazy, they are waiting, they are getting free aid, I knew that was not going to be the case. And sure enough, all those programs went away and we had a slight bump in return but we didn’t have anything what we needed to. People were not just sitting home because they wanted to, they were sitting home looking for something different or because they have other duties.
Ricci said issues like securing childcare remain a big factor as households still need to manage at-home distance learning, quarantines or decide to keep children in remote learning amid the ongoing pandemic.
“And that took a large chunk of people out of the workplace,” he said. “So you figure the early retirements, the people who unfortunately died from COVID, the people who decided not to come back to the industry and found something, the elder care the child care. You add all this together and there is a huge swath of the workforce that is not available right now.”