Rebecca Burnham, 38, is a single mother looking for a good job. She used to be a server and waited tables, but she’d been out of the workforce for about two years when she saw a news report several weeks ago: Goodwill Industries of the Valleys was beginning a hospitality training program.
She didn’t know Goodwill did anything like that, but it intrigued her.
“The hospitality industry is growing,” she said. “There are so many things I can do. I just have serving experience, but I know I can do more.”
About a week later, after a quick screening process, she was signed up for the four-week program as part of its first class. The course, which meets at least 20 hours a week, trains participants for jobs in the hospitality and tourism industry through classroom time and job shadowing. At the end, each student is eligible for several credentials to become guest room attendants or restaurant servers, or to fill other guest service roles. Certification isn’t a requirement for most hotel jobs, but it can make the job candidate more desirable to employers, according to program organizers. Goodwill will also help them in their job search. The program is free to participants.
Goodwill launched the program locally in mid-January and is now one of 14 Goodwills in the country providing hospitality training. Local Goodwill vice president Linda LaMona, who oversees the program, said it’s part of a national effort to help people land jobs in the burgeoning hospitality industry. LaMona said most of these jobs start out around $8 an hour, slightly above Virginia’s minimum wage.
Goodwill, a national nonprofit, hosts programs for people who have disabilities or other disadvantages and helps them find employment and gain independence.
Whitney Lawrence, the program’s instructor, said hospitality is a natural fit for many of the people who work with Goodwill.
“It’s one industry where you don’t have a college degree to get to the top,” she said. “It’s also very forgiving of criminal background checks.”
The hospitality class comes after a year-long partnership between Goodwill and Holiday Inn at Valley View. Goodwill approached the hotel’s general manager in 2014 to create a program to train people for hotel work, something that had been done successfully in other cities. Goodwill provided the participants, and Holiday Inn’s staff handled the training.
General manager Neil Ordway said there was some hesitancy among the staff at first as to whether Goodwill could provide capable employees. But the program turned out to be so successful that Intercontinental Hotels Group, the hotel’s parent company, honored Holiday Inn at Valley View for its work and now uses the program as a model for other hotels, Ordway said.
He said about 40 people have participated so far in Holiday Inn’s program; the hotel has hired six of them. But more than filling jobs, Ordway said, the partnership was personally rewarding, both for himself and the participants.
“You are giving them hope,” he said. “We place them in positions they feel they will do their best in.”
The employees showed up ready to work hard and keep their jobs. One was a vision-impaired man, Ordway said, who needed to find work. He was hired by Holiday Inn to work in its laundry department. Ordway said he became one of the staff’s best employees.
Holiday Inn’s training lasts six to eight weeks and has continued throughout the year. After seeing its success, LaMona thought Goodwill could add to the program by starting its own classes. Goodwill set aside about $42,000 for the project, she said. The nonprofit also continues to work with Holiday Inn.
She saw particular potential in the Roanoke region, where she believes tourism is taking on a new appeal.
“There’s area demand in hospitality for employees,” she said.
According to economic impact data from the Virginia Tourism Corp., tourism in the Roanoke region climbed for the fifth consecutive year in 2014, the last year data were available. There were 7,602 regional tourism-supported jobs that year, up from 7,450 in 2013.
There are 5,600 hotel rooms in the Virginia’s Blue Ridge tourism region, according to numbers from the Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau. In 2010, the bureau said more than 975,000 rooms were sold, a number that climbed to nearly 1.2 million in 2015. Several new hotels have opened in the past three years, including a Hilton Garden Inn in Roanoke County and a Hampton Inn and Suites at Valley View. A Hampton Inn is expected to open in downtown Roanoke this summer.
Richard Parsons, a professor in Virginia Tech’s hospitality and tourism department, said hotels are always looking for employees for entry-level jobs.
“One thing about the hotel industry is that there is a high turnover rate,” he said. “The hotel is usually on a lookout on a regular basis.”
Managers look for interpersonal skills during the hiring process, since so much of a hotel’s focus is on customer service. Hotels typically train their own staff on the details and protocols for the hotel, but managers want new hires to already possess soft skills and a good bedside manner when they come on board.
“It’s very common you’ll hear: They will hire the friendly, they will teach the technical,” Parsons said.
He also said it is common for entry-level hospitality workers to rise through the ranks. General managers of some very large, notable hotels may have started out answering phones at the front desk. Parsons knew of one who started in housekeeping.
Goodwill’s first hospitality training class is comprised of six students, all women. Much of the class revolves around training in interpersonal skills and customer service. Lawrence has repeatedly explained to the class that people skills — including dealing with difficult customers — are key for the job.
Shortly before noon on a Monday morning, four of the participants sat in Goodwill’s Roanoke office on Melrose Avenue, in a classroom equipped with a mock hotel suite. A queen-size bed, bathroom and table set for four took up half of the room. The morning’s topic: behavior and good manners.
“Should these words ever pass my lips: ‘It’s not my job’?” she asked.
All four women said “no” at once. Lawrence approved.
Lawrence will also train them as servers and housekeepers. Lecturers and guest speakers will be brought in, and the women will get job shadowing opportunities. The class trains them to pass the Skill, Tasks and Results Training certification exams, a nationally recognized credential and a desirable trait for entry-level work. Lawrence said, especially for her first class, she will personally see to it that everyone finds work and can set an example for future classes.
This article originally appears on TheRoanokeTimes