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MRA Report: ProStart Program One of Several Initiatives Underway

It’s no surprise that food preparation and service jobs are among the Top 10 Occupations in Demand for employers, according to a recent report by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Other hospitality industry jobs are also in the top 10, with more making it in to the top 25. 

The challenge to recruit and retain good employees is real. That’s the bad news. 

Here’s the good news. There are several initiatives underway to build and fill the hospitality jobs pipeline, efforts that complement strong existing programs and create new partnerships between the public, private and nonprofit sectors. 

At the core of these efforts is the ProStart program. It’s a nationwide, two-year high school program that unites the classroom and the industry to develop the best and brightest talent into tomorrow’s restaurant and foodservice leaders. ProStart teaches culinary skills, as well as the business aspects of the foodservice industry. The program connects students with industry leaders, provides opportunities for scholarships and perhaps most importantly, prepares young people for careers as restaurant owners, managers, chefs and other positions. 

Through grants and scholarships provided by the Hospitality Minnesota Education Foundation, the ProStart curriculum is offered in more than 60 Minnesota schools engaging more than 4,000 students. More than 600 of these students already work in the industry, with many having been recipients of scholarship funding to attend post-secondary education to advance their culinary knowledge and skills. ProStart is where Joshua Walbolt—of Lat 14 and the 2019 Charlies Rising Star award recipient—got his start as a student at Elk River High School. 

“Often times we get in our own heads trying to achieve our goals and don’t take the time to reflect on how much effort and support it takes to get us where we are going,“ says Walbolt. “ProStart and the HMEF have guided me throughout my career and continually support me as I grow.”

I’m happy to report that ProStart, and its companion hotel-oriented program—the Hospitality & Tourism Management Program—are gaining traction throughout Minnesota high schools. With tourism serving as an economic driver for many regions of our state, communities are getting creative about how they can grow their own workforce to keep their businesses thriving. 

In one Greater Minnesota community, schools and industry are working closely together to tackle the culinary workforce shortage head on. Tom Kavanaugh, a chef, resort owner and incoming chairman of the Hospitality Minnesota Board of Directors, reports that he’s working as part of a coalition that includes the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, Central Lakes College and Bridges Career Academy to implement a rigorous 40-hour culinary training workshop for small cohorts of high school students in the region, with ProStart as its core program. There are six schools currently offering the program, with another two joining next year. They’ve approached a variety of funding sources, from local chambers of commerce, to nonprofits to school districts, and raised $100,000 to equip schools and train teachers. “Capturing student interest in high school is the first step,” says Kavanaugh, “but a critical next step is to support them to continue their education and training for careers in the hospitality industry.” It is hoped that this new effort can serve as a model for other programs to be launched throughout Minnesota as it creates the bridge from high school training to real world jobs and career pathways.

There is support beyond high school, too. Since 2008, the Hospitality Minnesota Education Foundation has awarded more than $700,000 in scholarships to 290 Minnesota students looking to continue their education for careers in the foodservice industry. And now, Hospitality Minnesota is working to advance support from the Minnesota legislature for a state grant fund that would match private funding to help more young people access education and training in the hospitality industry. Through public/private partnerships, we will be much better able to address the pressing workforce challenges that are occurring throughout our state.

While there is great momentum, there’s still much more to do to grow the visibility and awareness of the excellent careers available in Minnesota’s hospitality industry. Hospitality Minnesota, the Minnesota Restaurant, Lodging and Resorts and Campgrounds associations are committed to growing the access to the vital training offered through the ProStart and the Hospitality & Tourism Management Program. 

Everyone in the industry can help, too. The ProStart program is always looking for chef mentors to partner with high schools and work with students throughout the year in preparation for the annual ProStart Invitational.  If you are a chef and interested in serving in this fun and important role, contact Cyndi Keesee at
cyndi@hospitalitymn.com. Winners of the state competition go on to compete at the national level. If you’d like to support Minnesota students interested in pursing careers in the industry, visit www.hospitalitymn.org/hmef.html and make a gift to the Hospitality Minnesota Education Fund. Support from companies to the Leaders Fund is also a key component in helping provide the course curriculum to high schools and scholarships to their students. Together, we can make a positive difference to increase the number of well-trained students who are passionate about pursuing careers in the hospitality industry in Minnesota. As our ProStart Rising Star chef, Joshua Walbolt, says, “Alone you can go fast, together we can go far. It takes a team to accomplish great things and a community to sustain it. ” 


About Hospitality Minnesota: 

Hospitality Minnesota is the voice for hospitality in Minnesota, serving more than 2,000 hospitality businesses across the state. Formed in 1958 to serve as the management company for the Minnesota Restaurant Association, the Minnesota Lodging Association and the Minnesota Resort and Campground Association, Hospitality Minnesota advocates for the interests of business owners and their employees and provides opportunities for education and training to strengthen the hospitality industry in Minnesota. www.hospitalitymn.org

Its Hospitality Minnesota Education Foundation exists to offer career-building programs—ProStart and the Hospitality and Tourism Management Program— that promote the hospitality industry to high school students; provide scholarships to students pursing careers in foodservice or lodging management; and lift up excellent career opportunities.

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