From Students to New Hires: Advice for Future Industry Pros

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A hospitality and culinary school freshman, sophomore, junior and senior walk into an industry trade show… No, that’s not the setup to what’s sure to be a punchline that will have you crying with laughter.

Four culinary students gathered for a casual but informative discussion during the 2019 National Restaurant Association show. Guiding the conversation was the always engaging Lori Zabatta, director of alumni relations for Johnson & Wales University.

The chat focused on what roles four soon-to-be hospitality industry professionals are interested in; what they should expect from the business; how to land their first jobs; and more.

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Given that these students are the future of the industry and that many believe qualified candidates are becoming harder and harder to find, this is valuable information for operators and managers.

Let’s meet the students.

  • Freshman: Wants a career as a restaurant chef.
  • Sophomore: Focused on tech, like management innovation systems. Hopes to look back on his career experiences and remember travel and fun.
  • Junior: Wants to work with the back of house and hotel managers in multiple markets.
  • Senior: Leaning toward F&B management and front-of-house roles. Enjoys interacting with guests.

Listening to these students for just a few minutes, a common thread emerged: They’re all interested in delivering a great guest experience. Well on their ways, then, for careers in hospitality.

Non-traditional Roles

Zabatta encouraged the students to be open to non-traditional culinary and non-culinary roles in the industry. She explained that success should be measured based on whatever path works best for each of them.

The non-traditional industry paths that this group of students find interesting are:

  • Buyers (furniture, plates, etc.)
  • Venue openers (open a new unit and then move on)
  • Public relations
  • Social media expert
  • Manufacturing
  • Sales
  • Contract foodservice (office buildings, corporate dining; such a role can offer more regular hours)

Zabatta advised the students to be flexibile, not just for future employees but for the longevity of their careers. If a particular environment or role isn’t for them, they should make adjustments.

Finding Jobs

When asked what the students think is the best way to find jobs, they had this to say:

  • Networking and building contact lists.
  • Attending industry trade shows.
  • Going to networking events.
  • Checking out career expos at their universities.

One of the students was at the Nationa Restaurant Association show as part of a city tour planned and executed by the University of Texas. He and his peers were touring Chicago hotels, kitchens and nightclubs; interacting with general managers and department heads; and learning how to navigate public transportation in case they needed it to get to work on time. The public transportation element was actually part of their grade!

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Of course, how one networks is just as important. Zabatta provided some helpful advice to these future professionals:

  • Networking is all around you: on planes, on shuttles to expos, fellow students, etc.
  • Stay in contact with your network of fellow students because you'll come across them again in the real world.
  • Engage with your community, whatever that means to you.
  • Develop an elevator pitch so you can communicate what you're looking for in this industry and be connected to someone else’s contacts.
  • Be helpful and look out for one another.
  • Set up an informational interview. Find someone who works in the field or a company you're interested in and ask to meet for coffee or at their office).
  • Job shadowing and staging.
  • Use LinkedIn effectively, utilizing and maximizing your online network there. Don't just boost your connections number, develop the right network so it works for you.
  • Search job postings.
  • Leverage on-campus resources and faculty. If a professor is teaching you about your major, they've come from the industry.
  • Attend alumni events.
  • Connect with national industry organizations that have student chapters.

Culinary and hospitality schools are clearly preparing students to hit the ground and develop professional networking skills.

What They Should Expect

Zabatta wanted these students—and presumably all hospitality students—to walk away from the discussion and their schools with realistic expectations. Right out of the gate, she let them know that none of them would likely get a giant paycheck from their first job. They must pay their dues, work hard, and put the time in while attending school so they can snap up entry-level jobs right after graduation.

Interestingly, the senior student must put 500 hours in to be able to begin her internship, and she must do an internship her senior year if she hopes to graduate. Hospitality students aren’t stepping into the real world with theoretical knowledge of the industry, they’re entering with valuable real-world knowledge and experience. Combine that with a hunger to perform and find their niche and the industry has thousands of top-tier candidates to look forward to hiring.

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Zabatta and the students discussed how three- and four-month internships aren’t just for obtaining experience, they’re also job interviews. For some students, internships will lead to their first jobs in the hospitality business. Internships also teach students what they don't want in their careers, and what specific companies or types of companies they’d rather avoid. In terms of compensation, Zabatta reminded the students that it’s not all about pay—they need to look into benefits.

Their First Job

Any owner, operator or manager who has read about hiring and employing Millennials and Gen Z candidates has been told they’re disloyal. They’ll jump ship, sometimes without any warning. Supposedly, they’re just as prone to ghosting online dates as they are employers.

Listening to Zabatta, however, that’s not what these students are being taught is the norm or acceptable. She recommended they (and their peers) obtain experience, develop their skills, and avoid don't jumping ship right away. In fact, Zabatta encouraged the students to put real thought into what else they could do for their first employers.

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Students were told they should focus on training and learn where else they’d be valuable to their employers. Maximizing the experience to learn what they do and don't like about their jobs, employers and the industry would do wonders for career longevity. Zabatta encouraged them to read books and trade magazines to stay informed on current events, both inside and outside the industry. Their first jobs would also offer them the opportunity to develop meaningful conversational skills so they’d be able to break the ice and engage with owners, managers, and others higher up on the career ladder.

Advice to the Discouraged

Many people become disenchanted with their job or industry at some point in their career. It’s only natural. As Zabatta put it, sometimes dreams don't match up with reality. It’s important that these students—and everyone in this business—understand that they've picked up and are honing skills that apply to more than just bars, restaurants and hotels.

In other words, there’s so much skilled, qualified people can do in the hospitality business. Change in a segment of the industry doesn't render someone’s skills and experiences worthless or unnecessary. Zabatta encouraged the students—and again, this applies to every professional as well—to think like entrepreneurs. They should seek new opportunities, leverage the contacts they’ve made, and some should consider actually becoming entrepreneurs. Future successful bar, restaurant and nightclub owners don’t just appear out of thin air, after all.

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