ECU School of Hospitality career fair expands for the future
Traditionally, SHL students, clad in business attire and armed with resumes, pressed the flesh of potential employees during SHL’s annual career event. Relationships are established. Internships are found, and it’s not uncommon for jobs to be offered.
Over the past couple of years, however, COVID-19 affected the career fair. Fewer companies attended, and fewer students walked the booths. Companies either weren’t hiring or implemented technologies that replaced staff.
“The entire industry, including higher education, was hit hard,” said Bob O’Halloran, director of the SHL. “We’re still feeling the effects.”
An Oct. 2022 report published by the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association (NCRLA) projected hotel industry revenue to be down by almost 20% compared to 2019. The same report did have a glimmer of hope. It stated that leisure travel is seeing an uptick, leading to “historic career opportunities for hotel employees (alone), with more than 115,000 hotel jobs currently open across the nation.”
Career opportunities are where the SHL comes in. It offers an undergraduate hospitality management degree focusing on convention and special events, food and beverage, and lodging. SHL students are also prepared for the broader service industry, including health care, retail, grocery, human resources and hospitality vendor companies, for example hospitality technology organizations.
“We have the curriculum in place to deliver hospitality employees and leaders,” O’Halloran said. “Now, we must develop programs to attract tomorrow’s leaders.”
One such program saw an expansion to the SHL’s career fair, which was held Feb. 9 in Harvey Hall at ECU’s Murphy Center. Almost 100 SHL students met with representatives from 25 companies looking for hospitality managers and employees. Joining the SHL students were 100 high school students from North Lenoir, South Lenoir and Tarboro high schools.
Programming for tomorrow
Titled the Hospitality & Tourism Career Pathways Student Conference, the SHL welcomed area high school students from various grades who expressed an interest in a hospitality career. During their visit, the high school students heard from hospitality representatives, participated in a panel discussion with hospitality recruiters, and previewed the SHL Career Fair.
Yolonda Titus is a food and nutrition teacher at South Lenoir High School. She hoped the attending high school students would understand that taking her class is not just about “being in the kitchen … it’s so much broader.”
“That’s why we took the opportunity (to attend) because we know it involves hospitality,” Titus said. “(I wanted to) let them know that there are many different career paths they can take just by taking our course.”
Kecia Poling is the director of the NCRLA’s foundation and workforce development. She attended the pathways conference not only as an alumnus, but also as an industry representative. It was her goal to “let the students know a little bit about the hospitality industry … and that there’s a variety of opportunities in the hospitality field.”
“Reaching these kids to get them interested (is important),” Poling said. “It’s important to grow the workforce pipeline as our industry continues to grow and to recuperate from the pandemic.”
After participating in the day’s events, Lilly Shifflet of Kingston and a senior at South Lenoir High School said she learned about the different experiences the speakers had to go through to reach where they are in their career.
“It was interesting to me how there were so many people in hospitality,” Shifflett said.
Andrew Schmidt closed out the education sessions. He is the president and CEO of Visit Greenville NC and serves on SHL’s advisory board. His message to both high school attendees and SHL students was the need, especially after COVID, to resupply the hospitality workforce.
“Our needs in the industry are going to do nothing but increase as we have baby boomers, retirees and more people traveling,” Schmidt said.
The high school students’ visit ended with a walk-through of Harvey Hall and a chance to speak with recruiters from event companies, resorts, hotel management companies, restaurants, sports teams and amusement parks.
As O’Halloran watched the interactions between the high school students and the recruiters, he was already planning on next year’s pathways conference.
“I’m very pleased with the turnout, and I’m very pleased with the message the conference participants conveyed,” O’Halloran said. “Hopefully, the exposure to ECU, SHL and the hospitality industry will get these kids excited for a career in a very fulfilling industry.”