Hospitality is one of the largest industries in the U.S., employing roughly two million Americans. But it also is one of the toughest industries for retaining employees, with an annual turnover rate of more than 70 percent. This, despite annual wage increases of 4 percent in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

(Source: American Hotel & Lodging Association)

To mitigate these losses, and provide further incentive to stay on the job, a group of hotel companies that includes Red Roof Inn and Wyndham is offering their employees the opportunity to earn no-cost associate and low-cost bachelor degrees.

Labor market woes

Shelly Weir is Senior Vice President of Career Development at the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Foundation (AHLEF). She talked to WorkingNation about the program, what it means for the industry, as well as its workers.

“We’re really facing the tightest labor market that we have seen in many decades. I’m sure every industry says the same thing. We are no different on the hotel side,” Weir said. “And we were really looking at innovative ways that we could help our member hotel properties kind of separate themselves in the talent recruitment and retention space. And so we felt like one of the best ways to do that would be to kind of come up with a new innovative strategy around offering no-cost and low-cost college degrees to our industry’s workforce as a way to kind of bolster the recruitment strategies for the hotels participating as well as keep those really valuable employees retained long-term at the hotel as well.”

According to Weir, the no-cost associate’s degree is focused on those hotel employees who have no post-secondary education.

“And so that could be everybody from an entry-level employee or believe it or not, it could be the general manager of the hotel as well. Because we are an industry that promotes from within. So, we have over 50 percent of our entry-level employees make it to general manager and are promoted along the career pathway and they could be promoted with or without a college degree depending on their skill set and their work ethic.”

“The bachelor’s degree are the folks that are, you know, definitely on the management path and are wanting to make sure that they’ve got that four-year degree under their belt before they get there,” she said. “So, you know, as you can imagine, a four-year degree is much more expensive than a two-year degree. There are a lot more credits that they have to get through. And so, because of that, we like to call it low-cost because depending on how long it takes them to get through the program there might be a little bit of a cost for them, but it’s still significantly lower than what they would’ve paid without the program.”

Ease of access

The AHLEF has partnered with the education management company Pearson and its Accelerated Pathways program for the administration of the initiative. One of the requirements is that all participating colleges have a completely online option.

“And the reason that that’s important to us is we have hotels in every nook and cranny across the country,” Weir said. “And so, we want to be sure that if we’re working with Wyndham for example and Wyndham wants to offer this to all of their hotel associates, that we have an opportunity for those hotel associates to get their degree at no cost in a fashion that gives them accessibility to it. So, if they’re working in a really rural location in Iowa, for example, and there’s not a college nearby then we don’t want them to be excluded from the program.”

Weir says more than 2,000 properties are offering the program, though eligibility is up to the individual employer.

“So, for example, one employer might say this is open to all of our associates, as long as they’ve been with us for 90 days or longer. Another employer might say, I want to offer this only to my hourly associates and they need to be here for six months before they can qualify for the program. Then you might have another employer that says every person is eligible, no matter how long they’ve been here for whether they’re hourly or management or salary or what have you.”

The areas of study offered also is up to the employer, but it boils down to three primary options, according to Weir.

“Hospitality is one. Business is another. And then liberal arts as well is the third option. And again, we have some employers that say any of those three options are fine. And then we have others that prefer to restrict it just to one or the other. And, oftentimes, it might depend on what that employee’s occupation is, but for the most part, most of them are offering those three.”

A student’s story

Faith Lowe (Photo: Faith Lowe)

Faith Lowe is a cook at the Wyndham Grand in Clearwater Beach, Florida. She says she first heard about the program through a company email.

“When I heard about the program and was weighing out all the pros and cons of joining, the pros outweighed the cons beyond belief. A few of the things that drove me to sign up for this was the fact that only 20 people were able to be selected, which the competitive side of me wanted to do my absolute best to be chosen to receive a spot for the Accelerated Pathways program.”

“The second thing that helped me decide to sign up was the ability to step out of my comfort zone with culinary and step into the business side of the hospitality field that I love so much. This program was also a steppingstone to be able to learn more and grow with this very supportive and welcoming Wyndham family.”

While Lowe is just getting started on her educational path, she credits the program with changing her outlook on the hospitality industry and improving her time management.

“I’m not too far into my business classes to be able to put that information into practical use. So far, I’ve been taking my core classes like math. With that being said I have changed my mindset to try to understand the foundation of such a large business like ours, and what makes it all work. I want to know all the ins and outs of a business, like what makes it run, what makes it run smoothly, and what makes a business profitable and successful. I’m confident that changing my mindset will help me prepare for my business-related classes in the very near future.”

What advice does Lowe have for other employees starting out on their Accelerated Pathways journey?

“My advice to a new employee starting this program would be to never quit, keep pushing. I had some struggles in the very beginning process with enrollment and everything, but I kept pushing day in and day out. I kept doing everything I could. Through this journey with your education with the Accelerated Pathways program, you have a very strong support system there to cheer you on, answer all of your countless questions quickly and to the best of their knowledge, and at the end of it you have an amazing degree!”

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