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Participants of the Be Your Guest program from the 2018-2019 school year at the end-of-program awards ceremony.

Be Our Guest initiative/Handout

Ask a high school student to name their career aspirations and the results still read like the Game of Life board game. “They come up with the usual: doctor, lawyer, accountant, teacher,” says Leeanne Bouteiller, acting program co-ordinator of student engagement and experiential learning at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).

That wouldn’t be a problem, except that many of the programs TDSB offers aim to give students hands-on learning experiences in the skilled trades. But long-standing stigmas around these careers mean interest is low, Ms. Bouteiller says.

As boomers increasingly retire, hospitality and skilled trades are beginning to feeling the impact of labour shortages. The Hotel Association of Canada estimates a national labour shortfall of 10,000 jobs in hospitality by 2035, while the Canadian construction industry estimates a shortage of 80,000 positions over the next decade. A ManpowerGroup survey from 2018 names skilled trades (electricians, welders, mechanics) as the hardest positions to fill in Canada.

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“Industries are noticing that there will be a shortage of employees coming up,” Ms. Bouteiller says. “More and more industries and organizations are contacting us saying ‘we would like to formalize our partnership or increase it or start a new one’ because they want to get students interested.”

One of those companies was downtown Toronto’s Hazelton Hotel. After being approached by general manager Hani Roustom, the hotel and TDSB launched Be Our Guest, an experiential learning program targeted at high school students. Since it launched in 2017, 26 students have completed the program and it has since expanded to include another three hotels: InterContinental Toronto Centre, Four Seasons Hotel Toronto and Fairmont Royal York.

The program will run again in the 2019-20 school year and Mr. Roustom hopes to add even more hotel partners and students to the program. “In the last few years, we’ve been really low on talent,” Mr. Roustom says. “The focus on growing and developing a talent pool has been really pre-eminent for all [hospitality] industry organizations.”

At the same time that experiential learning programs such as Be Our Guest are attempting to change students’ mindsets about stigmatized careers, Mr. Roustom hopes that employers will shift their perspectives on students in the workplace. “You’ve got that old mentality of ‘you need to come and pay your dues,’” he says. “You get an intern who will be made to do all these boring jobs: opening the door all day long, or cutting the onions.”

Instead, Mr. Roustom says the industry needs to understand the importance of challenging students, making them feel invested in their work and a potential career in hospitality. He attempts to do this within his program by having students rotate through different departments of the hotel, in addition to receiving one-on-one time with a general manager or a member of the executive committee. Students were also given problem-solving projects to practice brainstorming solutions.

For students who have completed the program, some positive results are emerging.

Christine Cutamora, who just graduated from Grade 12 at John Polanyi Collegiate Institute in Toronto, says that going through the program earlier this year has changed the way she sees the industry.

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She had previously associated hotels with its “check-in and check-out” repetitive nature. But she says working at the Hazelton gave her a new appreciation for the challenge of problem-solving guest requests and forming sales strategies. “That enticed me to work in a hotel,” Ms. Cutamora says. She’s since been hired by the Hazelton as a full-time employee.

Other students who have completed similar programs echo this enthusiasm. Jack Vickers, a Grade 12 student at Runnymede Collegiate Institute, was one of the first to participate in a TDSB program that offered exposure to the transportation sector. Part of the school board’s Specialized Trades Exploration Program (STEP), students were invited to work at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

“I was rebuilding engines for the buses,” Mr. Vickers says. “I would get an old engine and put new components in, swapping out parts.”

The experience cemented Mr. Vickers’ passion for mechanics, and he now hopes to pursue a career with the TTC or the army. He says his parents have always been supportive of his interest in the trades. But Ms. Bouteiller says that’s not always the case.

“Part of it is convincing parents,” Ms. Bouteiller says. “Parents need to be aware of the broad range of careers that are available and that their children can be successful in any of those.” One of the TDSB’s initiatives takes students and parents around on a bus to visit job locations such as carpentry projects, film sets and kitchens to witness these work environments first-hand. “If they’ve never been in the industry, I don’t think they can visualize it,” Ms. Bouteiller says. “When they get there, they’re surprised and amazed by some of the things that are getting done and what it looks like.”

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