Growing a hospitality workforce

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Hospitality industry jobs are up in northeast Wisconsin. A handful of training initiatives help develop more candidates to fill skilled positions.

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

America’s growing waistband is having an unexpected upside: Ballooning employment in the hospitality and leisure sector.

Between February of 2010 and May of 2014, these areas added 1.67 million seasonally-adjusted jobs nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Granted, not all were in food service. The hospitality industry includes arts, leisure, restaurants and hotels/lodging. But we all know Americans love to eat, and the numbers show they’ve had enough of living on a shoestring. Or, as one wise sage put it, “You can’t afford Italy, but you can afford a big plate of pasta.”

Wendy Hielsberg, executive director of the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau, sums it up: “I don’t think we’re in a recession anymore, but what the tourism industry has tracked is that people still want to have a good time,” she said. “People still want to enjoy their free time, and whether it’s boating or hiking or going to an event or going to a restaurant, they still find time to do that.”

Numbers up

Wisconsin’s food service and hospitality sector added 1,090 new jobs during 2013-14, and the Oshkosh area filled 8 percent of that total. It’s an increase of 12 percent above the previous year for Oshkosh. In fact, the Oshkosh-Neenah metropolitan statistical area tallied in at No. 6 in the nation for percentage of growth in hospitality jobs in 2014, according to an unofficial poll conducted by the human resources blog, Talent Tribune. Augusta, Ga. topped the list with a 19.1 percent increase in hospitality jobs, followed by Grand Rapids, Mich. (15.9 percent), Topeka, Kan. (14.4 percent), Boise City, Idaho (13 percent) and St. George, Utah (12.3 percent).

Hielsberg attributes most of her area’s growth to the openings of Best Western Premier Waterfront Resort & Convention Center and the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Alumni Welcome and Conference Center, both in Oshkosh. “They aren’t little properties, and they hired all-new staff,” Hielsberg said.

One tiny anecdote illustrating how the restaurant industry is booming in another city similar in size to Oshkosh is Fond du Lac. Ten years ago, the roughly square-mile around Forest Mall had a handful of places to eat, mostly fast-food. Now there are more than 21, not including grocery stores.

Local colleges to the rescue

Growth in the hospitality industry means more jobs, which means there’s a need for more training. Fortunately, help is nearby. The Wisconsin Technical College System offers several strong programs in hospitality, with specialties including hospitality management, events management, food-service production and culinary arts. Southwestern Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore even offers a golf-course management specialty.

Closer to home in the Fox Cities, Fox Valley Technical College offers programs in hotel and restaurant management, culinary arts and food service management, as does Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac.

Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay offers a hotel and restaurant management program, and Lakeshore Technical College in Manitowoc County offers programs in hospitality and culinary arts.

Everyone knows what a restaurant is and roughly what a chef does. But Chef Jeff Igel of Fox Valley Technical College said those not in the industry might have trouble envisioning hospitality management.

“Culinary majors are the ones who say ‘I want to spend most of my time in the kitchen,’ while hospitality management majors are the ones who want to spend most of their time out with guest,” Igel said.

Igel is department chair for Fox Valley Tech’s culinary arts and hotel/restaurant management programs. He often gets asked which program to take.

“I always tell students, ‘You don’t know what you’re going to need at the ripe age of 18, so you might as well give yourself the most trades possible so when the opportunity is there, you’re qualified for it,’” Igel said. “If you’re going to build a house, you’ve got to pour the foundation first. You can’t start with the roof.”

Cornucopia of workplaces

A two-year degree from a technical college can open dozens of doors. “Employment can run from general chef to sous chef to personal chef. We have students who become stewards or find work in ancillary components such as food-selection or  purchasing agents,” said Fred Rice, dean of applied technology and trades at Moraine Park. The school even had a student working at the South Pole in the U.S. scientific research station.

A lot of hospitality industry careers don’t require a four-year degree, said Conor Smyth, director of strategic advancement for the Wisconsin Technical College System. He noted catering managers, pastry chefs, restaurant food service managers, bakers, deli workers, banquet coordinators, convention sales agents, hotel managers, meeting planners and tour managers.

Event management is another growing career – coordinating all of the behind-the-scenes setup for an event such as tents, seating, public address systems, crowd management, food, vendors, entertainment, security and parking.

Smyth said the rate at which Wisconsin hospitality grads are “snapped up quickly” attests to the demand for their skills in the workforce.

It might not sound as glamorous as becoming the next Rachael Ray, but many grads find viable careers at supermarkets, says James Simmers, instructor in the culinary arts program at Moraine Park.

“Grocery stores are building and building. Their delis are growing and expanding, too,” Simmers said. “It’s a good profit center for them.”

The healthcare field is also employing more chefs than ever before. “Years ago, the big joke was hospital food,” Simmers said. “Now we see cafeterias with executive chefs and numerous choices” from salad bars and soup bars to comfort foods and everything in between: ethnic, gluten-free, kosher, low-fat, sugar-free and more.

A friend of Simmers’ quit a job as executive chef at a country club and went to work as chef at a high-end retirement community because it paid more. “It’s a great time to be a chef,” he said.

The 1980s: When life was simpler?

When Simmers began working in the restaurant industry in the 1980s, its landscape looked much different than it does today. For one thing, back then, you could start out as a dishwasher, which he did, and work your way up, which he also did.

Back then, kitchen culture was different than it is today. The executive chef reigned above everyone else. “The chef was the one with the tallest hat, and you barely spoke to them. They only spoke to the people under them who spoke to you,” he said. “Now it’s more of a team atmosphere of working together.”

Even terminology was simpler. Most people had never even heard the word gluten, or of celiac disease. Or of a peanut allergy. Going meatless in a small town was considered radical – not to mention becoming a vegan.

If a restaurant customer wanted to eat healthy, pretty much the only option for them was that restaurant’s version of “The Dieter’s Platter” – a baseball-sized glob of cottage cheese on a leaf of iceberg, with a few segments of canned peaches.

These days, it’s no longer enough for foods to be “heart healthy” or “made from scratch.” Now patrons expect gluten-free, locally sourced and organic options.

Even where food was grown was, if not simpler, then at least predictable – in giant farm fields rife with pesticides.

Back then, gardens were an old ladies’ leisure activity. Now they’re a political movement. If a restaurant was so kitschy as to have its own garden back then, it was hidden from guests. Nowadays it would be flaunted as a selling point.

One of Simmers’ earlier restaurant employers had a small garden, but they kept it out of sight, behind some hedges.

“Now it’s a concentration, and it’s more in the spotlight,” Simmers said.

Fully-baked technology

These days, work in the hospitality industry is more specialized. Instead of writing orders on note pads, wait staff might use tablets. Reservations and orders can be made online, and cash registers are replaced with fully integrated point-of-sale systems.

Even kitchen equipment is getting more sophisticated. Newer ovens are able to change temperatures in the middle of a cooking cycle, or adjust relative humidity inside.

“Business is profit-driven, so things have to remain updated, which means things like setting the relative humidity in an oven,” Simmers said.

He credits Martha Stewart for “bringing people back to the stove” in the last two decades, paving the way for the Food Network and celebrity chefs.

“It’s built a tremendous popularity for our field,” Simmers said. “It’s not always realistic, but that’s why there’s school, to tell kids that it’s not necessarily the way a kitchen works.”

With new equipment and technology on the rise, trends and diets changing quickly, allergies and food sensitivities on the rise, it all adds up to one thing: A workforce that needs to be trained and well-versed in various facets of culinary arts.

“There’s a larger demand today for skilled workers, whereas you used to just hire somebody and train them,” Simmers said. “People are wanting (workers) with experience or education. I have students asking me which is better, working in the industry or getting an education. My answer is always ‘Yes, both.’ Because there’s so much growth (in number of available jobs), I don’t know how much competition our students face at this time, but when the competition arises, they will have the education.”

Happiness one bite at a time

At the tender green age of 20, Kayla Pier has already found her calling: making people happy. “Good food makes really happy people,” she said.

Actually, she found it as a senior at Horace Mann High School in North Fond du Lac and quit the basketball team to join the culinary team. When she competed with the team at a Wisconsin Restaurant Association show, all other career paths were off the table for Pier.

“I really didn’t see myself doing anything else,” she said.

She went through the culinary arts program at Moraine Park and received her associate’s degree in 2014, two years after graduating high school.

Pier quickly found a job as a cook at Heidel House Resort in Green Lake’s BoatHouse Pub, where menu items range from Baja tacos to pecan-encrusted walleye. She said she doesn’t mind the long hours because she’s doing what she loves.

“I didn’t think having a job right out of culinary school would be this awesome, but I was lucky and got this job and it’s really good,” she said. “I love my job.”

Her favorite thing to do in the kitchen, though, is bake. While a student, Pier took cake decorating classes through the bakeware company Wilton and found her passion.

“I’m a baker at heart,” she said. “It’s fun to just chill and decorate cakes and cupcakes for like 4 hours and just pipe all these little details. It’s totally relaxing.”

Pier said if for some reason the culinary profession doesn’t work out, she doesn’t know what else she’ll do. “I don’t see myself doing anything else but making good, delicious food, whether it’s a chicken dish with pasta or doing something with cakes and cupcakes,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever find something that makes me as happy as this.”

Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.