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Re-establishing trust and image of Hospitality and Tourism careers during the pandemic

The unprecedented challenges faced by the Hospitality and Tourism Industry is a well-noted fact. Nevertheless, its significance both globally and locally was never underestimated. The World tourism Organization (UNWTO) statistics highlight the significance of tourism as a key economic sector in any country. It is the third-largest export category (after fuels and chemicals) and in 2019 accounted for 7% of global trade. Most importantly, according to UNWTO, tourism supports one in ten jobs and provides livelihoods for many millions more in both developing and developed economies.
Despite numerous substantial adverse impacts on the sector, many economies continue to rely on tourism for the said economic prospects. While we have witnessed the potential of tourism in the recent past in Sri Lanka, the hospitality and tourism-related education programs were becoming attractive for career-seeking students and private and public institutions.
The industry-specific nature of the Hospitality and Tourism-related undergraduate programs captured the attention of some students who have a passion for the industry, and the career prospects illuminated due to demand posed by the industry. It is understood that it is a fragile sector but an essential sector by all means.
Recovering, restarting and rebuilding are commonly discussed in the Hospitality and Tourism domain and have been subject to continuous attention by the authorities. Nevertheless, the attention on hospitality education remains relatively low. Several educational programs at various entry levels play a vital role in generating the labour required for the industry.
Notably, research in hospitality and tourism education is grabbing the attention of scholars, and has become even popular after the pandemic. While the gap between hospitality education and the industry requirement was a crucial concern in the pre-pandemic era, new concerns are imposed on the demand for the said programs and their operationalisation to sustain the market to ensure the long-term demand.
Numerous concerns on the available labour skills for the industry were among popular discussions in the hospitality and tourism education domain in the pre-pandemic era.
We have witnessed a significant gap between demand and supply in terms of employee’s attitudes, personality and linguistic skills. Only a few graduates are dedicated to the industry after graduation and committed to their jobs. Additionally, unrealistic career expectations of young tourism graduates, such as not being geared to start from the operational level, expecting quick promotions as soon as they join the industry, are among the main challenges in managing the industry’s labour force.
Many graduates also find it challenging to cope with pressure and stress unique to the industry. This evidence suggests that there are many issues in the labour force of tourism and raises concerns whether graduates who opt for Tourism degrees have a clear understanding of the industry.
My regular informal discussion with the past students revealed that many undergraduates in this specialisation positively and passionately perceive their study program. Some have a keen interest in migrating due to lucrative opportunities globally, and their intention to create their ventures and become entrepreneurs is also among the key motivations.
However, the students also have concerns about the inadequacy of the hospitality management curriculum to address their study needs, particularly the contribution made by the curricula to carry out duties skilfully of the industry by entering at the graduate level. They were also uncertain about the career opportunities in the industry despite their qualification.
Even though these concerns are hard to generalise, we have identified the fluctuating demand of the students for the program while it remains quite steady for the traditional specialisation courses such as accounting, finance, international business, marketing and human resources management.
Moreover, only several graduates stay in the industry as they find other careers more attractive in terms of monetary concerns. Unfortunately, many jobs are filled by graduates specialising in other areas such as marketing, where it may require the industry to give hospitality and tourism graduates a first concern.
While these discussions are ongoing Covid-19 affected all businesses related to Hospitality and Tourism: attractions, travel, accommodation, amenities, and activities. It has also imposed a more significant burden on education. More than 990 million students worldwide in pre-primary, lower-secondary, upper-secondary and tertiary education levels could not return to Schools or Universities (UNESCO, 2020). Covid-19 has a severe negative impact on education, ranging from Kindergartens to Universities and has resulted in pedagogical shifts to ensure the continuity of education.
While soft skills developed in students and imparting relevant theory to take leadership roles is a primary concern of academia, developing online platforms to meet these objectives has become a focal point of discussion today. Internships are a significant component of University Education.
During this period, the opportunities for internships are obviously low, and the structure of the training required to be a competent graduate is hardly acquired. While virtual internships have become an option and will be utilised in the future, many scholarly discussions are taking place regarding virtual internships as the future of Hospitality Education. Still, the extent to which online and remote internships will provide the richness and the required experience is questionable; working with the industry with structured training programs may make online internships a reality in the new normal.
Given this context, hospitality and tourism students with no or poor disrupted internships may seek alternative career options. It is vital that we take mechanisms to avoid a brain drain of talent and shifting the interest into alternative career options by reassuring current and future students and parents of the potential future of the hospitality and leisure management educational programs.
Based on the above evidence, this article intends to highlight a few points the Academia, Industry and the stakeholders could initiate or strengthen to capture and retain the interest in Hospitality and Tourism careers. The essential requirement for Hospitality and Education providers is to maintain close links regularly with the other stakeholders.
Moreover, it is essential that the industry leaders communicate the ongoing situation they experience with the pandemic and the changing requirements of the hospitality and tourism graduates and the future prospects of the industry with Academia. Collaborating with Academia for Industry-specific research and development activities could also result in new knowledge and insights.
On the one hand, while Academia takes responsibility for effective teaching and learning practices and creates a supportive environment for the Hospitality graduates, on the other hand, quality interactions between Tourism Stakeholders and Academia will positively contribute to imparting hope in Hospitality and Leisure Management students.
In addition to the attractive private-sector jobs in the industry, many Government Organisations could provide various opportunities for undergraduates and graduates, such as internships and career opportunities. These steps will develop confidence in students in this remarkable industry, and hopefully, the required links with Academia and the Industry Stakeholders will be strengthened to sustain the interest of our students in the industry.

Maduka Udunuwara, PhD
Senior Lecturer/Coordinator Hospitality and Leisure Management Program
Department of Marketing
Faculty of Management and Finance
University of Colombo

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