Wearing a mask and goggles, chef David Turin prepares a pasta dish at David's Restaurant in Portland's Monument Square in this Feb. 24, 2021, file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine’s leading hospitality industry group released a five-year plan Wednesday that aims to change how restaurants and lodging establishments attract and keep workers by focusing on education and career-building.

The nonprofit HospitalityMaine Education Foundation released the plan, which envisions the industry, government and educators collaborating to align education with needed job skills. The hospitality industry lost 13,000 workers during the pandemic as restaurants and hotels curtailed business and laid off employees. After the state lifted restrictions, many hotels and restaurants saw business return to or even exceed pre-pandemic levels this summer, but worker shortages continue to limit activities.

Maine is not likely to reach past employment levels given its demographics and ongoing competition for workers from other sectors, said Steve Hewins, executive director of the foundation. He said the plan will be a challenge to implement given the severity of the worker shortages and the need for collaboration across a wide swath of government and industry.

“The industry will have to do much more with fewer and more skilled staff,” Hewins said.

The hospitality and tourism industry is one of Maine’s largest economic sectors with $11 billion in annual sales and employing one in every seven residents. It grew for 11 straight years before the pandemic, but revenue declined 30 percent in 2020, resulting in thousands of lost jobs and hundreds of business closures.

The group’s plan is based around the experiences of restaurateurs and hoteliers who experienced increasing worker shortages each year over the past eight years that were magnified by the pandemic, said David Turin, chef and owner of David’s Restaurant in Portland and chair of the foundation’s board of directors. But he sees the plan as addressing more than a labor shortage.

“Some of us look at it as a failure to be competitive for the limited employee resources that are available to us in the state,” he said. “This approach is trying to build demand for people to want to work in the industry.”

That includes providing better wages, benefits and work-life balance, which he said have improved because of the pandemic. But higher labor costs, along with rising supply prices, are squeezing profits.

The new plan, called Dirigo Hospitality 2025, aims to build a talent pipeline for businesses and an education and career pathway for employees. The foundation plans to establish a sustainable education and workforce development system to coordinate the effort.

The plan lists seven priorities that include introducing primary and secondary students to the hospitality industry through school visits by chefs or hotel managers and creating advanced culinary and hospitality programs that partner higher education and industry. A key part of the plan would allow high schoolers and other students to earn college credit with work experience. It also will establish programs to advance women and people of color, expand job training in the correctional system and support English-language training for new Mainers.

HospitalityMaine will look for ongoing funding to support the plan from foundations and other sources as well as state agencies, Hewins said. The foundation will also put together action items for the plan in October, with an initial focus on enticing young people.

The foundation, along with York Community College and Jean Ginn Marvin, owner of the Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport, already have a pilot program in place. Seven students enrolled in York’s “Earn and Learn” one-year culinary program this summer, getting hands-on experience in jobs. This fall they are continuing their education at the community college until they earn a certificate in hospitality management next March. They can continue studying to get a two-year degree with added skills.

This type of program gives the industry a funnel of potential workers at every level, Michael Fischer, president of York Community College, said.

“There are some entry-level jobs that you have to learn before you work your way up the ladder, but there’s some real opportunity to create a career,” Fischer said.

Maine’s seven community colleges are working to bridge more workforce gaps going forward, said Dan Belyea, chief of workforce development officer at the Maine Community College System. Several community colleges offer a one-year certificate or two-year associate’s degree, although more courses are needed for workers to brush up their skills.

“But it’s the volume of offerings that are needed,” he said. “A lot of folks need short-term skills up-training that can take place over a month or two to start building credentials.”

Enticing more students into hospitality includes showing them that the jobs are more than serving, cooking or managing the front desk, Ginn Marvin said. Her inn has a person dedicated to social media, another to planting flowers and one to running the children’s program.

“People don’t necessarily think about those things when they think about hospitality,” she said.