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A Degree Of Hospitality

Posted: 08/08/11 01:07 PM ET

The United States is increasingly becoming a "service economy." According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2018, four million jobs will be added in this sector. This presents a tremendous opportunity for the currently unemployed, as well as young, first-time job seekers and new immigrants.

But there are two interrelated problems: in the U.S., most service jobs aren't considered long-term careers and there is very little professional training for them. Take front of the house restaurant jobs, for example. Although they number in the millions and can offer a good living, the public generally gives these occupations little respect.

Sadly, it seems that at least some of this disrespect is earned. In our surveys of diners across the country, an overwhelming 67% of respondents say that service (not food, crowding, noise - not even price!) is the most irritating aspect of dining out. Incompetent waiters generate surveyor comments like this: "the food's French, the staff's Martian"; "glacial is too fast a description -- tectonic is more like it"; "the fish is great, but the waiter should be used as fish bait."

What accounts for this situation? First and foremost, it's a lack of professional training. When it comes to wait staff, few job candidates have any formal education in the field. As a result, restaurateurs -- not to mention hotel managers, retailers and other service-industry employers - are forced to assume the expenses of on-the-job training, often just enough to get by.

This does not augur well for the future. As this sector of the job market expands, providing the best possible service will become not only more important but also more challenging given the sheer number of positions that will need to be filled.

What's the answer? We believe it's the creation of degree-granting hospitality programs. That would increase the respect for and professionalism in what is becoming one of the largest areas of job growth in the nation. These need not be expensive, four-year programs. Even short-term and online classes or part-time certificate courses would improve the level of service, not to mention prestige.

Think it can't happen? If we want to improve the front of house, it's helpful to remember the revolution that's already occurred in the kitchen. Just a few decades ago, the U.S. restaurant industry was small and unadventurous. Back then, few middle-class Americans would have dreamed of becoming a cook and working in a hot, cramped kitchen. Today, chefs are highly regarded -- some are even celebrities, ubiquitous on TV and online - and the food they create is better than ever.

Education fueled much of that transformation. When we were growing up in the 1960s, there were few cooking schools in America. Today, schools like the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson & Wales have multiple campuses, gorgeous facilities and top-notch faculties. And there are hundreds of other respected culinary institutions and programs across the country. So when you dine out now, there's an excellent chance that your chef has had formal training. Why not your waitress, too?