I was asked to write a foreword to the People 1st State of the Nation survey on jobs and skills in the travel and hospitality sectors. Here it is:

Over the last two years the travel industry has been through enormous change – and it isn’t stopping. Consolidation of the big four – MyTravel, Thomas Cook, First Choice and Thomson – into Thomas Cook and TUI Travel created a knock-on wave of consolidation throughout the sector.

And over the last 12 months the economic downturn has started to bite, with the collapse of the XL Leisure Group being the largest and most dramatic failure to date. Airlines have fallen by the way side, travel agencies and tour operators have gone out of business.

Now our worst fears have come true. We have a recession and the pressure on travel and tourism industry continues. However, all is not doom and gloom. Out of adversity comes innovation, focus and purpose.

Employers are starting to be creative with how they invest in their workforce. This report highlights, for example, that apprenticeships are becoming an increasingly popular way of attracting newcomers.

Not only are apprentices seen as a cost-effective way to invest in future workforce. Employers find they stay in the organisation for longer and can also be more effective than staff who have been employed in alternative ways.

For example, TUI UK is aiming to expand its travel apprenticeships programme by recruiting 500 new recruits in June and July this year. The company is a big fan of apprentices having  hired 3,500 in the last five years. They make up 30% of all its travel agency staff and tour reps. The apprentices are aged 16 to 18 and receive on-the-job training as well as more formal learning.

It is also heartening to see that employers are more interested than ever in new ways to train their staff – turning to initiatives such as Train to Gain. Employers that are serious about innovating their way out of tough economic conditions will be acutely aware that they will need the right people in place wit the right skills.

Travel industry initiatives such as the Accredited Travel Professional Scheme, which is supported by the Institute of Travel and Tourism and ABTA, are also starting to get traction now that large companies such as The Co-operative Travel have signed up.

So travel agents will be able to take more control of their training and development through a continuing professional development scheme.

And let’s face it, now is the time for a travel agent to go all out to develop their skills. AA Apointments’ annual salary survey for this year revealed a very tight jobs market, so developing skills to help differentiate against others in the jobs market is key.

Although businesses in the travel and tourism sector are facing huge challenges this report signals something positive for the sector.

At last we have a definitive report into workforce, training, retention and business development strategies. We have statistics that can be used for both benchmarking and trend analysis. We have an accurate snapshot and analysis of how this sector is working.

But this report represents more than this. People 1st has been working hard to get the travel and tourism sector engaged with how its own sector skills council can help employers and employees.

That work is now beginning to pay off. People 1st works closely with ABTA and the Institute of Travel and Tourism and employers across the sector. Senior figures in the travel industry have taken an active part in the development of the Diploma in Travel and Tourism and some are now taking on employer champion roles.

All those at People 1st who have helped make this happen are to be applauded. There is still the challenge of showing employers what types of support are available to them but they are starting to get the message.

Through these tough times the industry – and that includes associations, People 1st and employers – must continue to galvanise relationships, share expertise and deliver skills and training to those who most need it.

Better times will return – London 2012 is only round the corner – and the industry needs to be ready to respond when they do.

And here is an analysis of the survey.