The millennial way: What tourism industry can teach us about ‘brain drain’

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Young people are more willing to travel to find jobs now, it's often born out of necessity. [Xavier/Flickr]

The younger generation is more willing to travel to find work and open borders are essential to creating a truly European workforce – it is a process that should be embraced, writes Alex Katsomitros.

Alex Katsomitros is HR and Community Manager at Movinhand, a digital platform that matches employers with skilled workers who are looking for fixed-term job opportunities abroad.

Immigration is the most controversial issue right now in Europe. There are several studies putting a number on immigrants’ contribution to several European economies, but such evidence will never convince those opposing open borders.

Even from the point of view of source countries the picture is bleak. Brain drain is seen as the gravest long-term problem facing Southern Europe. In many cases those who land a job abroad are even accused of treason, abandoning the ship for pastures new. The ugly truth is that for skilled workers from Spain or Portugal, emigration may be the only alternative to unemployment at home.

Is that all? Fortunately not. Stuck to a mentality that sees labour mobility through the lens of the nation state, we often forget that national borders have never been more tenuous.

Take for example the increasing willingness of younger employees to travel the world. A recent study by The Boston Consulting Group shows that millennials are much keener than their parents on trying their luck abroad. This is part of a broader shift in the way they think about work. According to a recent report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers, millennials are averse to commitment and appreciate “a flexible approach to work”.

Changes in employee attitudes are partly driven by technological innovation. Sharing economy juggernauts have based their business model on on-demand work; this is one of the reasons why they are able to upscale their operations at unprecedented levels, as Singularity University’s Salim Ismail, Uri van Geest and Mike Malone have argued in a recent best-seller, ‘Exponential Organizations’.

Employers appreciate flexibility and a global mind-set too. Some companies such as the online apparel retailer Betabrand even send employees abroad on free vacations to help them get a whiff of cosmopolitanism.

If there is one sector that shows the direction of travel in the world of work, that is the hospitality industry. Although widely regarded as a labour-intensive industry where recruiting methods are stuck to old-fashioned word-of-mouth, hospitality has many lessons to teach us about global talent management tailored to the needs of the millennial generation.

One is a by-default global mentality. Tourism had been cosmopolitan in mind a long time before globalisation became pertinent to most other industries. Targeting an international customer base, hotels encouraged from early on their workforce to develop a sense of cultural awareness that is now widely sought by employers, even in the most insular industries.

It is not a coincidence that hospitality workers are highly adaptable and equipped with interdisciplinary skills that help them move easily to other sectors, from language skills to customer service.

One aspect of the hospitality industry that renders its recruiting methods exceptional is seasonality. Many workers move from Mediterranean beach resorts in the summer to cosy chalets in the Alps in the winter. This is a by-product of the tourism industry’s weather-related idiosyncracy. But in today’s ever-evolving world of work, everything and everyone is seasonal.

The ‘job-for-life’ mentality is done and dusted, as millennials, who will make around 50% of the global workforce by 2020, brace themselves for a career full of shifts from one industry to another and short-term stints at various companies, at home and overseas.

Hospitality has been successfully riding on this wave of ever-evolving “brain circulation”, forcing workers to move from one country to another in search of a more senior position or higher remuneration.

Perhaps the best example of the sector’s hiring resilience is the way it has responded to skill gaps. Facing an acute chef shortage, restaurants and hotel chains offer to budding cooks and sommeliers short-term job opportunities, global mobility schemes and flexible working hours. Many employers lure them by offering opportunities to land top positions early in their careers or pursue their personal projects, often focusing on ethnic cuisine.

The hospitality’s take on millennials would not be possible without Europe’s open borders. Freedom of movement helps young Europeans leave their comfort zone and acquire a global mind-set. So never mind the allegations that some countries are missing out on their chance to recover by losing skilled workers. The vast majority of the latter will work in various countries through their careers; many will eventually return to their home countries, equipped with valuable knowledge and connections.

This is the stepping stone to build a truly European workforce. Emigration and immigration are after all the two sides of the same coin; we should embrace them as a cyclical process rather than a linear one. The tourism industry’s take on millennials shows how this could be achieved. 

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