A meaningful and planned entrance into the hospitality industry

08/21/2013  |  By DR. PAUL DEVRIES
Student Careers

As high school students matriculate into their final years of secondary education, many turn their attention to future aspirations and careers. This article focuses on those students who are interested in a vocation in the hospitality industry, also known as culinary arts. I will; however, make a distinction that culinary arts focuses more on the food production aspect, whereas the term hospitality refers to a more holistic perspective of the industry as a whole.

An important question to ask about any potential industry pertains to its viability and long-term growth prospects. Despite a global recession and sluggish U.S. economy, the hospitality industry has continued to maintain at least minimal growth, a pleasant surprise when compared to many other U.S. industries. According to the National Restaurant Association the hospitality industry currently employs 13.1 million people, or put another way nearly 10 percent of the U.S. workforce. The industry has also seen consecutive growth over the last 13 years, with 2012 seeing an increase of 2.4 percent. This figure is compares favorably with the national average which increased by 1.5 percent.

For a student looking for a career in hospitality there are numerous routes which can be taken, and although a postsecondary qualification is not required for entrance it is certainly an option worth considering. Within the postsecondary arena there are multiple options to choose from, though with student debt practically doubling between 2006 and 2012, tuition cost and expenses are key metrics that should be kept in mind. In a recent article, College Board compared the median debt of students and found that on average students at a public four-year college owed $7,906, compared to $17,040 for private not-for-profit, and $31,190 for the for-profit institutions.

Obviously, cost is not the only concern faced by students; reputation and curriculum quality are additional factors that need to be assessed. When looking at reputation, albeit a nebulous proposition, one should ask questions regarding the school’s alumni. For instance, what types of positions are they currently employed in, average yearly earnings, and how many remain employed within their chosen degree fields five years after graduation? If you want to find out more information regarding graduation rates etc., visit the College Board website (www.collegeboard.org) and search for the institution’s name.

From a curricular perspective it is important that students are exposed to the foundational skills required by the hospitality industry. If completing a culinary degree these would include knife skills, product identification/fabrication, cooking methods, front of house skills, and exposure to contemporary/classical menu items. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but one that should highlight key talking points during any admission interview. In addition to industry requirements students should look to see if the school provides classes in other elements required by a global economy. These include critical thinking, communication, management, and entrepreneurship skills. These types of classes provide students with the education needed for a successful career. After all, knowing how to cook doesn’t mean you can manage a profitable business in hospitality.

Another critical element required by the hospitality industry, and one that is commonly missing from a student’s résumé is prior, related working experience. Often students are unable to secure employment during college, due many times to a shortage of open positions or a course schedule that limits availability. This is where the college internship becomes important.

Internships provide students with real world experience, in addition to the formation of industry connections that in some cases can lead to full-time employment post-graduation. Internships vary in length from 12 to 16 weeks, though some colleges mandate completion of internships lasting over 12 months.

The choice of an internship site should be based to some extent on what part of the industry a student wishes to work. It would seem arbitrary to spend time training in hotels when corporate cruise lines are a student’s primary employment choice. That being said, for students with limited or no industry experience any good quality internship site will provide a positive boast to a résumé.

From a college’s perspective their job is to secure an internship site for the student, this doesn’t always mean it’s the best fit. Student’s should be proactive and seek out potential internship sites that ultimately benefit their career goals. Yes this involves extra work, but the rewards can be life changing. It is worth noting that some companies might not qualify as an internship site due to regional accreditation mandates.

A caveat to bear in mind when considering admission into a postsecondary institution is whether or not a degree or certification is actually required for that position. Many entrance or line positions into the hospitality industry do not require a postsecondary credential. Also, it is not unusual nowadays to find companies that are willing to provide in-house training, particularly prevalent in large chain and corporate entities. This is not to devalue the worth of a postsecondary qualification. Contemporary findings do support the overall benefits of earning a degree; however, students should determine if college is the right decision based on their overall career goals.

Today there are literally hundreds of colleges offering culinary and hospitality credentials, making the final decision a difficult one. Should a student complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree? Should they try and save money by entering a community college and transferring to a public four-year university to complete their bachelor’s degree? Whatever a student chooses it should be based on professional objectives and fiscal means.

The hospitality industry is not an easy profession, often employees and managers are required to work long hours with nominal pecuniary remuneration. In order to determine if the industry is a good fit I would recommend that high school students get involved early. For example ProStart is a program offered by the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation (NRAEF). The program awards students a certificate upon successful completion of two exams and 400 mentored hours. Typically these requirements are completed during school hours through exposure in culinary classes. The NRAEF also offers college scholarship opportunities for students who complete the program and transferable college credits to those institutions that accept them.

If a high school culinary program is not available, then students should look for local volunteer opportunities. These can provide both culinary experience and a positive addition to a student’s college application.

Paul Devries is Associate Professor at Johnson & Wales University Charlotte.
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