Is hospitality education broken?

Initial results from a recent eHotelier survey could suggest that the current system and approach to hospitality education is indeed broken. The survey of close to a thousand international industry and education respondents provides fairly stark data that despite the growing international demand for skilled hospitality professionals, both industry and education are finding it difficult or extremely difficult to recruit students. Industry reports increasing difficulties over the last five years of recruiting students from hospitality education, whilst at the same time hotel schools, colleges and universities are finding it equally difficult to recruit students to their hospitality courses.

This trend is not restricted to one level or section of the industry or education, but appears to be impacting on all areas from apprentices, to chefs, graduates and even postgraduates. Not all educational levels are affected in the same way as there is some variation in the data, but overall the message is very clear. Fewer students are entering into hospitality education and therefore fewer skilled graduates are available to enter into the industry.

The supply of skilled graduates is significantly less than the demand. Does this suggest that the hospitality education has lost its way and the courses they offer, and by extension the industry they represent, has ceased to be an attractive option?  Why should this be when less than a decade ago demand for hospitality courses was very high and the demand for hospitality graduates was equally high? Is this a generational issue, an industry image problem, a career perception problem or the complex interrelationship of these and other issues? Probably the latter but the complexity should not preclude sound analysis and potential solutions.

There is no simple fix for this, and given the current trend lines, the position looks set to get worse. Industry comments on the problems range from: “it is the millennium generation problem” to “applicants lack in quality”.  Others have a different take, suggesting that students are only made aware of international brands and therefore seek employment with those brands, which in turn impacts on local opportunities.  Due to the increased competition to recruit hospitality students, “brands” are having to increase their geographical recruitment search in order to secure the skill sets and attitudes they require of their employees. Other employers report a different approach – ignoring hospitality graduates altogether by recruiting from a wider normal specialist pool of those with the right attitude, and then providing the necessary training.

A consistent theme runs through the majority of the comments that the responsibility for this recruitment problem should be shared between industry and education. Many respondents refer to the image and perception problem of the industry neatly summed up in the following, “We all have to make our industry more attractive again”.

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For that industry must take the initiative in promoting the career opportunities, creating an aspirational “buzz” around the industry and looking very seriously at the nature of the compensation package through both salary and benefits.  As one industry respondent commented, “The compensation package is not as attractive as other sectors“.

Hospitality education does come in for a number of criticisms with comments ranging from “there is a huge gap between industry expectations and the skill sets of the hospitality graduates who apply for employment”, to more telling comments and observations on the nature and content of hospitality courses as seen from the industry perspective. “There is a distinct polarisation of courses available, from those that are basically business studies with a unit (module) on hospitality, to those that feature every aspect of operating, managing and owning a hospitality business.”

This theme of the “shrinkage of the hospitality curriculum” has been noted in a number of related articles and publications and has been a noticeable trend over the last decade. While the trend may have been gradual, it is now significantly impacting on the industry’s perception of the skills and knowledge of graduates from hospitality courses. Comments such as “students have too narrow a skill set” or more generally “hospitality students do not have the required skills, knowledge and attitude towards the job” were noted. These common and prevalent criticisms are well summarised by “they have to understand (students) that while they might have book knowledge, they are missing the practice and experience in dealing with people required to lead and keep a team together”.

Some of the more pointed comments reflect on the quality, as industry sees it, of hospitality students as well as the content of the programmes.  One comment in particular captured a number of industry views: “There are fewer hospitality students….Period. Primarily because they can’t spell the word hospitality, let alone define it.  Most of their knowledge is superficial and they think they can be instant vice presidents!”

These are comments that reflect the experience of the 500+ industry managers who took the time to complete the survey.  These views could be dismissed as unrepresentative of the industry, but given the size of the sample they do provide sufficient insights to raise real concerns. The overriding sentiment from the survey suggests that areas of hospitality education may not be entirely broken but are certainly in need of very serious attention.

The industry has a role in fixing the problem as well as identifying some of the key issues. They need to be much more proactive in promoting opportunities in the industry and work very closely with education to support recruitment to hospitality education courses. They should also recognise they have a responsibility in creating a positive, engaging and aspirational working environment that in itself becomes part of the rationale for students to want to undertake hospitality courses.

Education equally has a part to play in ensuring courses meet the needs and expectations of potential students in the industry. The system needs fixing but a mutual blame game is not the answer.

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