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National Restaurant Association - Why young people need programs like ProStart

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Why young people need programs like ProStart

Wendi Safstrom, vice president of educational programs for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, explains how ProStart prepares young people to become industry leaders.

Q. What is ProStart?
A. The two-year program for high school students is based on a curriculum called “Foundations of Restaurant Management and Culinary Arts.” It started in 1997 in Chicago when career technical education, or CTE, was beginning to emerge. Many industries, including foodservice, were getting involved in CTE and helped move it into the secondary or high-school space. They realized they would soon be facing a shortage of workers for the next five, 10, 15, or 20 years. For the restaurant industry, it was an opportunity to engage a unique audience that it hadn’t formally tried to attract before. The Illinois Restaurant Association picked it up, and then it started to grow in other states.

Q. How does it work?
A. The program is a partnership between state education departments, restaurant associations, the National Restaurant Association, and the restaurant industry. It can be taught in high schools and/or technical centers. Depending on the school, classes last about an hour, five days a week. At career technical centers, the students sometimes attend for longer windows of time, for example two hours, three days a week.

Q. Why culinary AND restaurant management?
A. We’re training young people interested in back of the house and becoming chefs, but we also have a huge need for folks who understand front of the house and business management. You can be a phenomenal chef who produces great food, but if you don’t know how to staff your restaurant, procure your inventory or manage your employees, you’re going to go out of business. Our industry needs restaurateurs and operators who have an appreciation and understanding for all of it.

Q. What is the role of the state restaurant associations?
A. They serve as resources to ProStart educators and connect students and members of the industry. They make classroom visits and provide field trips, mentoring and professional development activities. They raise money to help their education foundations operate the programs. They also promote the program to restaurant members to increase awareness and encourage young people to attend post-secondary hospitality programs for further study. And sometimes they help students go directly into the industry.

Q. How has the program changed over the years?
A. At the core, the intent and purpose is the same: to provide high school students an opportunity to learn skill-based training, gain exposure to the front and back of the house, and understand what it would be like to have a job or career in the restaurant industry. It's now in every state.

Q. How do you know whether the curriculum and kids are succeeding?
A. We conducted baseline research in 2014, second-year research this year,  and we’re continuing to add to the database. We conduct surveys to learn what pieces of the program are most effective and what subject matter most helps educators. So far, it’s customer service, teamwork, safety and sanitation, and professionalism.

Q. What companies participate as mentors?
A. Brinker and T.G.I. Fridays are very involved. But the largest employers of ProStart students are QSRs. The perception that ProStart specializes in fine dining isn’t necessarily the case. The kids learn all aspects of the industry. Yes, there are times when they’re learning how to fabricate a chicken, but they’re also learning about cooking techniques that go into all elements and aspects of operations in various segments.

Q. How do you get past the industry’s "burger flipper" image?
A. That’s part of the whole research piece of this. One of the things educators told us in 2014 is that ProStart didn’t have enough information about jobs and careers in the industry. As we go into the 2016 edition of our curriculum, we’ll infuse that information into it and focus on developing a great, interactive job site where students can explore different pathways and salaries associated with them. Before, the focus centered on the ProStart scholarships, but our messaging is expanding.

Q. Are participating companies happy they hired ProStart students?
A. ProStart students bring an understanding of what it’s like to work in a restaurant. And these kids – they’re 15, 16, 17 and 18 – have demonstrated an interest very early on. They’re taking the classes as electives over something else, like marketing, or music or art. By choosing ProStart, they’re really showing an interest in going into restaurant management or the culinary arts. Operators see them come out of the classroom looking to apply what they’ve learned at a business. Also, post-secondary schools see them as a step above those who come into their programs without training.

Q. What is ProStart’s ultimate goal?
We want young people and educators to think of the restaurant industry as a viable, rewarding place to have a job and/or career. We want people to know there is a career path in the industry, and ProStart provides exposure to those opportunities. There are jobs and careers not only in “traditional” restaurants, but also in the supply chain or other allied businesses that provide services to the restaurant industry. We want to get people thinking about how diverse that web is and tell them there’s a place for them.

Q. How would you advise a young person thinking about taking the classes?
A. I’d say, give it a shot. There’s a place for everyone in this industry. Take the classes, give it your all, and engage with the industry. Employers want to help and encourage you. As much as you put into it is how much you’ll get out of it. There really isn’t a limit to how far you can go. It’s all about the work you put in, the skills you learn and the connections you make.

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