As the U.S. economy drives unemployment to historic lows, and Americans continue to purchase travel, it is getting ever more difficult to attract leisure travel agents to the business.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in June 2019, 47 metropolitan areas had year-over-year increases in nonfarm payroll employment. One had a decrease, and 341 were essentially unchanged.
The largest over-the-year employment increases for non-farm employees occurred in New York-Newark-Jersey City (+123,800); Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas (+120,000); and Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, California (+87,100).
In June, nonfarm payroll employment increased in 14 of the 38 metropolitan “divisions” over the year and was essentially unchanged in 24 divisions, BLS said. The largest year-over-year increase in employment occurred in New York-Jersey City-White Plains (+111,500); followed by Dallas-Plano-Irving, Texas (+97,000; and Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights, Illinois (+63,500).
The largest year-over-year percentage gains in employment occurred in Reno, Nevada (+6.2%); Idaho Falls, Idaho (+4.2%); and Asheville, North Carolina. Also coming in at +3.8% each were Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Florida; Ogden-Clearfield, Utah; and Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, Florida.
Over the year, nonfarm employment rose in 31 of the 51 metropolitan areas with a 2010 Census population of 1 million or more, while employment was essentially unchanged in 20 areas. The largest over-the-year percentage increases in employment in these large metropolitan areas occurred in Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, Florida (+3.8%); Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, Arizona (+3.3%); and Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas (+3.2%).
In states with high travel agent populations, unemployment hovered at all-time lows this summer. For example, in California, the Department of Labor reported unemployment at 4.1%. In other states with high populations of travel advisors, unemployment was at 3.5% in Florida, 4% in Illinois, 3.8% in New York, and 3.6% in Texas.
As more private industry companies compete for employees, compensation costs for private industry workers increased 2.6% over the year for the three-month period ending June 2019, compared with a compensation cost increase of 2.9% in June 2018. Wages and salaries increased 3% for the 12-month period ending in June 2019, compared with 2.9% in June 2018.
At the same time that the industry is competing for qualified employees, travel sales remain solid, keeping existing agents busy. According to Airlines Reporting Corp., total passenger trips settled by ARC for U.S. travel agencies in the first half of 2019 increased by 2.4% to 161,850,103 from 157,997,776 during the same period last year.
Corporate agents in highest demand
Corporate travel appears to be stronger than leisure currently, as ARC reported that passenger trips booked by predominantly leisure travel agencies in June 2019 were down 7.8% versus the same month in 2018. Business travel trips booked by corporate agencies were up 1% in June 2019, versus the same month last year.
“If you are a seasoned agent, you can find a job. It’s an agent’s market, especially on the corporate side,” said Gayle Walsh, president of the Travel Staffing Group, in New Egypt, New Jersey.
“The travel industry is booming,” said Jill LaBarre, vice president of business development, at Palm Coast Travel, OASIS Travel Network. OASIS has launched its New 2 Travel program for both new and second-career employees.
BLS captures wage and compensation information for travel agents, but the latest figures available covered the period ending May 2018. Then, BLS estimated that there were 69,480 people employed specifically as a travel agent, earning a mean annual wage of $42,720.
At that time, the top 10% of travel agent wage earners were estimated to have a mean annual wage of $66,080, while the top 25% were earning a mean annual wage of around $52,000.
The highest mean annual wage geographically was found in California ($47,460), followed by Florida ($41,630), and New York ($40,000).
Walsh said several host agencies are working with her to source independent contractors (ICs). “There is very high demand for ICs. It’s a big area of growth.”
“The harder jobs to fill are those where a company wants an employee in their offices. I have one client, a Pennsylvania corporate travel department, who has been looking for someone since February. It’s grueling. I have a huge database of contacts. I’m constantly networking. But everyone is working from home and making in the $60,000s, and they don’t need to make the move.”
“If you’re working and doing well, odds are you want to stay where you are. If someone wants an agent to commute into a major city, they’re going to have to pay them $80,000-90,000 to convince them to do it,” Walsh said.
High employment could squeeze off one demographic that had been a source of new agents for the industry – people in their 20s. “Hiring managers really need to fight hard to get young people,” Walsh said. “They are not knocking on the door saying I want to be a travel agent.”