|By John Lantigua, The Palm Beach Post,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 05, 2012--The nine students were near the end of a tour of the Marriott hotel when they were allowed through a door for staff only, so they could see behind the scenes.
That door led not only to a backstage world but, they hope, to their futures.
They all belong to the HOST program -- Hospitality Occupation and Service Training -- run by the Workforce Alliance, the nonprofit agency that helps Floridians find work. The program is one of the initiatives that Palm Beach County says it will employ to eliminate the importation of foreign guest workers in the country club and lodging industry.
About 2,000 workers annually have been imported to work in local clubs and resorts in recent years, despite an unemployment rate that once topped 10 percent countywide and was about twice as high among minority workers.
After The Palm Beach Post wrote articles on the importation of those workers, County Commissioner Burt Aaronson formed a task force with local hospitality industry executives, educators and the Workforce Alliance to find and train local residents to fill those jobs. The task force has given itself a target of four years to eliminate all foreign guest workers at hospitality venues.
"Recruitment and training of local job seekers who are eager and ready to work in the county's No. 1 industry helps offset the need for foreign hospitality workers," said Sean Dykes, former operations manager for The Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans, and now a consultant and classroom instructor for the HOST program.
Mark Baker, the Marriott's general manager, says his hotel stopped importing guest workers several years ago and he has used the Workforce Alliance to fill some positions since.
"The people they sent me have all worked out," Baker said. "If I can get a few more, I'll be happy."
Leaders of local minority organizations pushed publicly to have more locals hired by the hospitality industry . The students in attendance on the recent visit were all black or Hispanic, and between ages 18 and 21.
The program targets young people who are at risk. Some have dropped out of school. Some are single mothers. Other participants have had minor brushes with the law.
"But they are in the HOST program because they want to do better, to get a good job," said Tom Veenstra, a Workforce spokesman. "They want someone to give them a chance."
And they must prove themselves before the program will accept them. Although about 50 people are recruited for each class, they are tested for aptitude and attitude, and only 15 make the cut.
They must then complete a nine-week classroom course on the hospitality industry and customer service. The students must pass four exams with at least an 80 percent grade and must demonstrate that they are serious by showing up every day, on time and properly dressed.
Workforce helps them by paying students $150 each time they pass a test and by providing child-care expense money, a gas voucher or bus pass, and a $50 voucher for clothes.
The students also must prove that they have the personalities to work in the hospitality business. That means smiling often.
"You have to have some smarts," Dykes said, "but in the hospitality business, attitude is even more important than aptitude."
The Marriott's Baker said everyone who works in a hotel must be prepared to respond to guests' needs and do so in a friendly manner.
"We're in the hospitality business, not the hostility business," he said. "You have to have a passion for taking care of people. We hire you for your attitude and then train you so you have skills."
Baker also warned would-be employees not to be overly sensitive when their work is inspected by supervisors. In other words, don't feel "dissed" because your boss is double--checking what you do.
"You have to expect people to walk around behind you and check your work and don't take it personally," he said. "We all have to work together to meet a guest's expectations."
Dykes said it will take a different attitude for his charges to get along in a hospitality venue than it might to survive on some of the county's tougher streets .
"These are kids who have been tied to their neighborhood environment and are reaching out to another, very different environment here," he said.
Dykes has had success. In the past six months he has placed HOST graduates in the Palm Beach Gardens Double Tree, the Ibis Golf and Country Club, and the Holiday Inn at Palm Beach International Airport. His students have been hired for all facets of the business: front desk, banquets and housekeeping.
On the day of the Marriott visit, three students were interviewed by Michelle Fulse, the hotel's housekeeping supervisor.
"I love their appearance," she said. "They came dressed to impress and they did. They were very smiley and they asked a lot of questions."
Fulse said it is hard to remain upbeat when dealing with particularly unpleasant guests.
"I've gone home and cried some days," she said. "We'll have to see how they deal with a very demanding customer. We teach them to do it with a smile."
Fulse was so pleased that she offered all three students she interviewed internships: Jessica Cole and Velene Daniel, both 21, of West Palm Beach, and Terelle Brown, 19, of Riviera Beach. They will work 12 weeks or 360 hours, whichever comes first, at $8 per hour, paid by the Workforce Alliance.
It's an internship, but it comes with a salary -- and for Daniel, that made it a special occasion.
"This is the first job I've ever had," she said, flashing a smile to make her mentors proud.
(c)2012 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
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