Help wanted: Looking for a few good employees

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NEW YORK -- The federal government reported a gain of 947,000 jobs in the U.S. in the three months ending May 31, a hefty growth rate that reverses trends seen since the spring of 2001.

Does that rosy news translate into new jobs in the travel agency business? The answer is a yes, with several caveats.

In other words, the rehiring -- after serious contraction post-9/11 -- has started, but there aren't as many jobs as were seen in brick-and-mortar agencies around, say, 2000.

However, it is not altogether bad news that expansion is modest.

Despite king-size layoffs in the travel industry, hiring managers and placement professionals report it is as hard as ever to find qualified personnel because so many people left the industry in the past three years.

Moreover, too few people are entering the industry, a complaint heard in years past but more urgently today.

Travel Weekly polling

A Travel Weekly Research questionnaire, e-mailed to subscribers, produced results that confirmed the complexity of the situation. The 368 respondents who qualified themselves as having hiring responsibilities reported fairly recent layoffs (10% at about a year ago and 17% within the past year), but more (38%) reported that rehiring has started. Among those back in expansion mode, about a third have rehired some of the employees furloughed.

About half of new hires in the past two years were clustered in the most recent six months, they said. Also, more than a third (38%) reported that all new positions were full-time posts.

In a separate survey, provided exclusively to Travel Weekly, 54% of 201 Carlson Wagonlit Travel associates responding to an e-mailed questionnaire this month said they have added staff or contractors this year.

That figure breaks down as follows: 24% hired staff agents, 12% contracted for outside agents and 18% added both. Another 7% said they would add staff this year.

Numbers don't lie

The experiences at All About Travel in Mission, Kan., put flesh on all the numbers: Coby Gaulien, president, said transactions are up 42% in the past 18 months at his $65 million agency, but the agency didn't begin rehiring until about the last four to five months, he said, boosting head count only 8% to 10%, because "the online factor is growing, producing thinner margins."

Now at 62 full-time employees and 42 contractors, the agency has "stayed taut" regarding new hires among in-house agents, instead adding more contractors plus personnel in customer service (to serve corporate clients) and in IT for online product development. Nevertheless, Gaulien said, he would like to add more on the leisure side, "but there are fewer and fewer talents in the business."

Mixed messages

The bulk of respondents in the Travel Weekly research (71%) represented agencies with 10 or fewer on staff. They are not nearly so well represented among employers retaining recruiters, but placement professionals see the same mixed messages.

Yes, there is growth in the agency segment, beginning from this spring, said Denis Day, CEO of TravelJobs.com in Downers Grove, Ill., but things aren't as rosy as they appear in government reports, he said. Patricia Corbino, president, added that the most numerous placements by TravelJobs.com, a nationwide operation, are for lower- and middle-management slots.

Gayle Walsh, owner/president of Personnel Travel Consultants in New Egypt, N.J., serving New Jersey and Pennsylvania, said demand for leisure agents -- not corporate agents -- is "definitely on the upswing," but good leisure retailers are hard to find.

Marty Robinson, president of Boston-based Travel Career Network, noting that agencies are "definitely" adding permanent jobs in her New England service area, said she sees upward pressure on salaries.

Corporate slots

Travel Placement Service in Orange, Calif., serving southern California, is fielding strong demand for permanent and temp staff, according to President Cheryl Rodgers, but most of her placements are experienced corporate agents.

Now, she has job orders for leisure agents at Web companies where those agents need two skills, technology as well as travel product knowledge. The irony, she said, is that managers are fussier than in the past, thinking "there are hundreds out there unemployed."

P. Jason King, chairman and CEO of Yours in Travel Group [www.yoursintravel.com], located in New York, said salaries need to rise because it is difficult for agents to find qualified staff, especially on the front lines. So far, he said, agency owners "are not stepping up to the plate on this."

He said calls for staff adds began in about September, and activity is vigorous everywhere except the New York metropolitan area and the Pacific Northwest -- but with a much smaller job pool. To illustrate, he said Yours in Travel averaged 12,000 job applications a month in 2000; now, that average is 2,500.

There are opportunities, King added, noting that his lowest-paying management placement in the last six months was at $75,000, and the most recent are six figures. He added that tour operators are breaking an old mold (of hiring off one another) by hiring retailers, "an opportunity for agents to stay in the business and get better jobs."

You can reach the journalist who wrote this article at [email protected].

These days, temps are the way to go

NEW EGYPT, N.J. -- Gayle Walsh, owner/president of Personnel Travel Consultants here, said her business has shifted so significantly in recent years that she has a second trade name, Personnel Travel Temps.

She said the shift began gradually, but now she typically has 18 to 20 temps in place each week, up from eight to 10 a week a year ago. The temps often work odd hours and usually not full 40-hour weeks.

All the temps are in corporate travel settings, and they are the staff of choice these days, Walsh said, because corporations are transitioning as much travel buying as possible to the traveler and electronic booking tools.

Meanwhile, Marty Robinson, president of Boston-based Travel Career Network, said placing temps "isn't really what I want to do" but that doing so meets the needs of her New England clientele and frequently produces conversions to full-time jobs.

Patricia Corbino, president of TravelJobs.com in Downers Grove, Ill., said her firm's temp business was nonexistent in 2000, but it now has "quite a bit of activity" placing people with call centers and with agencies of all sizes across the U.S. -- N.G.

• • •

Employment exec sees few traditional jobs

ARVADA, Colo. -- Matt Garton, president and CEO, Travel Career Connexxions, like his counterparts, sees growth in job opportunities, but he gathers his information in a different way.

His customers are about 200 larger travel companies, including some agencies and tour firms, that pay no fees to list their job openings at Travel Career's Web site (www.travelexecutive.com).

The focus is on higher-level management posts. Job hunters pay a subscription fee, which covers two newsletters and access to the Web site to monitor for openings.

He said there are "not a lot" of traditional brick-and-mortar trade positions, and he believes the industry's total number of agency jobs is down.

Nevertheless, agencies are adding staff, mostly in higher-end, Web-related jobs, such as online ad experts, search engine marketers and e-commerce specialists. -- N.G.

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