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Training Home-Grown Hospitality Talent in the Caribbean

A new partnership between HVS and Yéle Haiti will teach core skills to future hotel employees.

Monday, July 11, 2011
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One of the challenges in opening a hotel, particularly in the Caribbean, is hiring trained employees to manage and operate the property.

A new program from the nonprofit Yéle Haiti and the hospitality consultant HVS will try to resolve that challenge by creating a hospitality vocational training program in Haiti. The program, which beings with 120 students in September, is designed to prepare its graduates for entry-level positions in hotels.

The hope is to encourage economic development in the country still reeling from a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in January 2010 as well as persistent struggles with poverty. The program will be located in Jacmel, a port city and tourist area that suffered severe damage after the earthquake.

“A lot of times you hear about sustainability in the Caribbean. Our take on sustainability is to help with economic development and opportunities for people in the region to get better paying jobs and jobs within the hospitality industry,” said HVS Caribbean Managing Director Parris Jordan, a native of Trinidad. “It improves the workforce of the Caribbean. We in turn will alleviate poverty in the islands and lead to true economic development.”

According to the CIA World Fact Book, poor access to education, along with poverty and corruption, are the biggest challenges for Haiti. It’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere – 80 percent of the population live under the poverty line – and the country needs to create jobs and build institutional capacity to thrive.

Textiles and agriculture are the country’s top industries, but Yéle Haiti CEO Derek Johnson said programs like the new initiative can develop tourism into a vital part of the economy.

“I can tell you that HaitI's share of the tourism economy is infinitesimally small, for obvious reasons,” he said. “Quite frankly, with exception of Labadee, where a couple of the cruise ships dock, there is virtually very little international tourism in Haiti. We see that as an opportunity. To the extent we can elevate the quality of the service being delivered ... we believe we will make significant contribution toward luring developers, hospitality companies, hotels and others to take the leap of faith and come to Haiti.”

Both Yéle Haiti and HVS were looking for projects to help long-term economic development in the region, and decided to work together rather than pursue independent projects. Yéle Haiti already offers vocational training courses in carpentry, masonry, and plumbing through a similar partnership.

“We thought [HVS] to be the ideal partner for the kind of education we were looking to deliver among a population of people eager and virtually desperate to work but without the skills or educational attainment to do so in an environment of severe economic depression and overt poverty,” Johnson said.

To develop the curriculum, HVS interviewed human resources executives from major hotel brands to understand what the needs were throughout the Caribbean region. HVS also met with owners, operators, general managers on the islands to get a sense of the needs on the ground, as well as representatives from government and the Tourism Association of Haiti.

“Let us be clear: The program is really geared toward making locals become more employable,” Jordan said. “Based on feedback from the brands we interviewed, a lot of times they would go into the market and there wouldn’t be enough employable people. People do not understand basic customer service, so they would have to train them. If a hotel is going to be built, they will have people who are employable.”

The six-month program will be divided into two parts. The first three months students will focus on customer service: training employees to smile, look people in the eye and engage customers in conversation. In the second half students will focus on an area of specialization such as the front desk, housekeeping, and food and beverage.

“When we put this program together we’re getting the best practices so we can craft the curriculum to suit their needs,” Jordan said. “We’re not pulling from a cookie cuter course from somewhere else in the world and applying it to the curriculum. We’re creating the curriculum to suit their needs.”

The program will help graduates find jobs. Already, the management of a new hotel in Jacmel has committed to hiring least 75 percent of the first graduating class.

“People want to know they are putting money behind something successful,” Johnson said. “We can proudly say that at this point it looks extremely positive insofar as us having an immediate, discernible and measurable impact right out of the gate.”

While the immediate focus is on Haiti, Johnson pointed out that the graduates could pursue hospitality employment anywhere in the Caribbean.

“These people will graduate with a skill set, albeit entry level, that they can travel with,” Johnson said. “We hope to capture and keep as many as possible, but to the extent a family can go off and migrate to another island but still make an investment to the service delivery in the hospitality and tourism industries, it’s all for the better. As the region improves, so will Haiti.”

In the past few years, Jordan said, the Caribbean has lost market share to competing destinations such as Mexico, Central America, South America partially because of low service standards.

“The Caribbean for many years had been established for sun, sea and sand. But competitive markets have taken it up a notch,” Jordan said. “We need to educate people on the real issues and the fact that customers have become a lot more demanding. They won’t return to a country if they are not satisfied. Haiti may not be one of the top destinations, but the fact they are trying to get it right is important. If they are trained and trying to get it done, that’s an important part of the process.”

As the program graduates people into entry-level jobs, the hope is that they will move up into higher-paying jobs that hotels often fill with ex-pats. The large number of foreign workers, combined with the foreign ownership of most hotels, means that 80 percent of tourism revenues generated by Caribbean countries leave of the islands, Jordan said. Training local workers for these jobs will keep more money in the region and allow for greater economic development.

While HVS and Yéle Haiti have secured funding for the pilot program, they are in the process of raising money for future classes.

“If this is a program that runs one cycle only, we both will have failed,” Johnson said. “To make a real impact is critical, not just for purposes of checking the box and saying we scored one, but also to go out into the marketplace and attract funding for subsequent classes of trainees. Ideally, we would like to be pioneers and we’d like to see HVS roll out this type of program across the Caribbean basin.”

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