Orlando’s tourism job market is growing faster than at almost any time in the past 10 years.
The number of leisure and hospitality jobs jumped by 5.5 percent during the past 12 months, according to new state and federal employment data. The area gained 12,200 tourism positions — one of the biggest year-over-year gains in a decade.
About 233,500 people now work in leisure and hospitality, making it the biggest employment sector in Metro Orlando. The industry, which includes hotels, restaurants, theme parks and other attractions, accounts for more than 21 percent of all jobs in the region.
Employers are finding they have to work harder to find people.
Last week, Job News Orlando hosted a job fair targeting the tourism industry, and it featured key players such as Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and Hilton Grand Vacations trying to fill more than 1,000 jobs.
More than 1,000 people turned out to apply for jobs as servers, housekeepers, bus drivers, security officers and sales agents.
“There’s a lot more competition today,” said Aimee Brun, Hilton Grand’s senior manager of talent acquisition. “They [candidates] can be more selective now.”
The job numbers for leisure and hospitality reflect the strength — and resiliency — of Florida’s tourism industry.
The state just posted its best second-quarter visitor numbers in history, according to Visit Florida, the state’s chief tourism marketing agency. The agency says about 24 million people came to the state, an increase of 3 percent over the same period last year.
In the first quarter of 2014, Florida attracted 26.6 million visitors, putting the state at just over 50 million for the first half of the year. Gov. Rick Scott has set a goal of attracting 100 million tourists to the Sunshine State this year.
“A thriving tourism industry is vital to growing jobs,” Scott said in a statement this week. “And today’s report that Florida has experienced another record quarter for visitation is great news for Florida families.”
Growth in leisure and hospitality jobs has been consistent. The industry has posted year-over-year gains in all but one of the past 10 years. The exception was 2008 to 2009 — the depths of the Great Recession — when annual average employment fell from about 200,000 to 190,000.
But the sector rebounded quickly, surpassing prerecession employment levels by 2011.
During the past 12 months, only the construction industry had a bigger growth rate, at 7.4 percent. But that number is not quite as impressive as it might seem. Construction was devastated by the recession, with layoffs claiming half its work force. Working from that smaller base, it has been easier for the industry to post big percentage gains.
The competition for tourism workers may be squeezing employers to boost wages.
In July, Walt Disney World, the region’s biggest private employer, agreed to raise minimum pay for its full-time workers from $8.03 an hour to $10 an hour by 2016. Workers covered by the contract include janitors, housekeepers and bus drivers.
Historically, leisure and hospitality has been the lowest-paying non-agricultural sector in the U.S.
In 2013, Metro Orlando’s 13,000 housekeepers made, on average, $20,550 a year, according to federal data. Its 35,000-plus theme-park attendants and food-prep workers earned less than $19,000.
As the job market has improved, employers have found it harder to fill some positions. During the spring, resorts were poaching employees from competitors, offering signing bonuses and paying a premium for weekend work. Housekeepers, in particular, have been a hot commodity.
“There just aren’t enough to go around,” said Chuck Simikian, Nickelodeon Suites Resorts’ human-resources director.