By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business
This is the third article in a 12-part series, adapted from my dissertation work at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, on the discord between academe and industry over the role of hospitality education and the purpose it serves in career development for hospitality professionals.
In the last article, we examined the typical structure of higher education programs in hospitality management. Now, we’ll look at some of the common criticisms of such programs from industry partners and other stakeholders.
Some Argue that Hospitality Curricula in Higher Education Uses Obsolescent Training
One of the most prominent complaints about hospitality curricula in higher education is an obsolescence of training, due to the rapidity at which technologies, laws, products, markets and other industry variables change. Some industry professionals assert that what hospitality students are learning in their degree programs is outdated to the point of irrelevance. By the time graduation comes, their academic pursuit has been little more than an exercise in futility.
However, hospitality educators have something to say in response to this allegation. Colleges around the world recognize the need for student development of timeless social skills such as professionalism (attire, punctuality, and ethics, for example), presentations (oral or written), persuasive sales and marketing communication tactics (media, proposals, campaigns), networking and interviewing.
As just one example, at UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration, undergraduate students draft resumes and cover letters, attend industry events, participate in a mock job interview with university career services specialists, cooperate with fellow students on countless projects and presentations, and complete a minimum of 1,000 work experience hours honing their social skills. These requirements of hospitality majors are not uncommon because educators have realized their importance.
Even the Most Prestigious Hospitality Programs Cannot Teach Students All They’ll Ever Need to Know
However, even the most prestigious hospitality programs cannot hope to teach students all that they’ll ever need to know; nor can they expect to clairvoyantly predict changes in products, customers, laws, technologies and other variables. Therefore, instead of focusing on teaching “what to learn,” many schools focus on imparting an understanding of “how to learn,” so that students embark on their career paths with the ability to adapt and improve as their unique circumstances require.
For example, much of hospitality undergraduate formal education is geared toward developing skills necessary for a career in the industry, with either an entry level or – for the occasional fortunate student – a line supervisory-level career opportunity in mind. One might ask: How do these programs prepare hospitality undergraduate students for an eventual position in senior management? The answer, succinctly, is they don’t.
Sure, there are graduate programs designed with these skill sets in mind. But for many hospitality students, graduate school might be either unfeasible or unappealing.
Yet the reality is that the time and resources available in undergraduate programs don’t allow for exposition into the infinite scaffolding of career possibilities for each student. Instead, universities focus on ensuring that hospitality students are able to improve their own skills after college and into their careers. That way, they can prepare themselves for what lies ahead and avoid career ceilings caused by a lack of proper qualifications.
Learning the Hospitality Industry by Knowing ‘How to Learn’
Consider, for example, a graduate with a bachelor of science in hospitality management. Shortly after conferral, this graduate lands an entry-level position as a front desk agent at a hotel in Las Vegas. As time passes, he finds himself steadily climbing the ranks of the company from a supervisor to a manager to a director, and eventually to executive leadership.
At this point in his career, that graduate is expected to possess skills such as corporate governance, shareholder relations, legal oversight and brand management. And these skills look nothing like the curriculum that comprised his undergraduate degree, which included property management systems, basic accounting principles, wine tasting, and how an air conditioner works.
However, all is not lost because, although his alma mater did not provide him with the “fish” that he needs, they taught him “how to fish.” Through his experience in school, he became an expert at learning.
That graduate realized long ago that, although he did not know how to manage a department budget, if he watched how other successful managers were doing it, he could do it as well. And if he adopted the best practices he observed, he could match their success.
Likewise, when he becomes a director, he discovers that, although he didn’t understand a thing about unions, if he consulted human resource compliance officers and followed good advice from the company’s legal team, he could survive a labor relations board investigation.
And later, as a corporate officer, although he is clueless as to how to structure an initial public offering (IPO), he knows that if he asks the right questions and pays close attention to financial advisors and SEC regulations, he will acquire the skills necessary to accomplish the task. He can self-teach sufficiently to take on new responsibility.
As such, academicians would assert that formal higher education has a role to play in developing a solid foundation of “learning how to learn” while in school. So when they graduate, they possess the means to continue educating themselves as the specifics of their career paths may require and reach their highest potential.
In the next part of this series, we’ll discuss the criticism that the esoteric lessons taught in college hospitality courses are too removed from reality and practical utility to be relevant to industry practice.