CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
The visitor industry is working hard to find the next generation of local hospitality workers. Kapiolani Community College students Anna Huertas, second from left, and Rita Barrientos talk with Julie Morikawa, right, and Grant Durant, an intern at ClimbHi. Morikawa is executive director of ClimbHi, a nonprofit career development program that recently partnered with the Hawaii Tourism Authority to host the Lead, Expose, Inspire, or LEI, hospitality training and job fair for local high school students.

Isle hospitality leaders are stepping up efforts to recruit young locals into tourism positions

by Allison Schaefers
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 27, 2015

Hawaii tourism leaders, who say a strong local workforce is needed to distinguish the islands from all the other sun, sand and surf destinations, are looking for the next generation of hospitality workers.

Visitors can experience crystal-clear waters in Costa Rica. They can see palm trees in Fiji, visit the white sandy beaches of Okinawa or shop until they drop in Dubai. But Hawaii is the only place where visitors are greeted with the unique brand of hospitality known as aloha, said Julie Morikawa, founder of ClimbHi, a nonprofit career development program for high school students that partnered with the Hawaii Tourism Authority to put on the Lead, Expose, Inspire (LEI) hospitality training and job fair for local high school students.

“There is no hospitality industry without our local people. They are the most important piece to creating a competitive advantage for Hawaii,” Morikawa said.

Hawaii’s tourism leaders always have targeted local talent and recruit heavily from local colleges. However, they’ve recently stepped up efforts with the younger crowd after discovering that by high school some of Hawaii’s best and brightest already are making career training plans that don’t include Hawaii or tourism.

While HTA said the success of Hawaii tourism supports about 170,000 jobs for isle residents annually, this leading industry still has to work at recruiting the next generation of tourism workers. The spread of other economic drivers in Hawaii and a more connected world mean that many of these workers have more career choices in a wider range of locations than the generations that came before them.

“It’s crazy to think that in years past some of our high school students were graduating knowing nothing about tourism, our largest economic driver,” Morikawa said.

Growing support from Hawaii’s visitor industry helped LEI, a tourism offshoot of ClimbHI, more than double enrollment in its fourth year of connecting high school students to careers in the visitor industry. Held in April, the multi-island event brought 800 high school students and another 100 community college student mentors to more than 60 businesses, including 21 full-service hotels.

HTA works with various entities and educational institutions to support career development programs for Hawaii’s visitor industry, said Jadie Goo, HTA brand manager of career development. However, Goo said its partner LEI has been particularly effective by growing every year while increasing awareness and interest in careers in the tourism industry.

“The program’s four-year history has led to positive feedback from the participants. Many students have gone on to post-secondary hospitality programs, received internship opportunities at LEI partner companies and/or returned as program mentors,” she said.

Goo said HTA also works with the Department of Education and the University of Hawaii to provide academic pathways that allow students an opportunity to explore and learn about hospitality. She said 17 DOE high schools are offering hospitality and tourism programs.

“Through these partnerships, the HTA is able to engage Hawaii’s youth, provide academic pathways and highlight the varied career opportunities within the tourism industry,” Goo said.

Educating Hawaii’s students on the career opportunities in the hospitality industry also is an initiative of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said HLTA Executive Director Karen Nakaoka. The organization’s national arm has established the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute, which has designed a hospitality and tourism management program that prepares students for roles in the hospitality industry, Nakaoka said.

“Our goal as we continue to build and design our programs at HLTA is to be more engaged in helping to educate our youth about the industry and encourage them to seek careers in Hawaii hospitality,” she said.

Nakaoka said HLTA’s educational partnership program helps Hawaii hotel properties connect with local high schools.

“Waipahu High School has done a tremendous job in promoting a hospitality-focused curriculum with their students,” she said.

Local hotel chains such as Hilton also are running their own programs.

In May, DoubleTree by Hilton Alana Waikiki took part in Careers@Hilton Live: Youth in Hospitality Month by hosting a group of about 30 students from McKinley High School. As part of Bright Blue Futures, Hilton team members donated their time and expertise at the event to help young people achieve stability and bring hope to their communities.

“Young people continue to face challenging employment prospects, so it is more important than ever to make sure they receive information and advice about the options available and the skills and attributes they will need once they embark on their chosen careers,” said Michael Wilding, general manager, DoubleTree by Hilton Alana Waikiki, who began his hospitality career nearly three decades ago as a food and beverage intern.

Wilding said there are plenty of opportunities for young people who want hospitality careers in Hawaii. However, Hilton’s many brands also offer Hawaii’s youth the chance to leave home and see the world in a multitude of occupations ranging from housekeeping and management to maintenance, security, accounting and a variety of high-tech visitor industry-related careers. The company has more than 540 hotels and resorts in 78 countries across six continents, he said.

“We are passionate about raising awareness of the opportunities the hospitality industry offers, and we are delighted to be doing this through one of our biggest-ever career events across the globe,” Wilding said.

Events such as the Hilton career day remind students that it’s definitely good to keep an open mind, said David Chuang, a recent McKinley High graduate who plans to go to Kapiolani Community College to pursue a career as a radiology technician.

“If ultrasound doesn’t work out for me, it’s nice to know that tourism would be a strong backup,” Chuang said. “I’ve learned that there are a wide variety of opportunities in the visitor industry.”

Chuang’s teacher, Chris Martin, who teaches at McKinley’s finance and tourism academy, said tourism workforce development, training and recruitment programs are valuable because they connect students to all aspects of the industry. For instance, Filamer Doronio, a recent McKinley graduate, said he was excited to learn that there are plenty of tourism jobs involving his chosen field of finance.

“I’m planning to go to the Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, but I feel that hotels are something that I might want to pursue in the future,” Doronio said.

Other recent McKinley graduates, including Cindy Hoang, are already sold on pursuing tourism careers and have used industry programs to narrow their focus.

“I knew that I wanted to be in tourism, but I’ve decided that I want to be a flight attendant,” Hoang said. “I’ve also learned that it’s good to go to college regardless of my choice.”

Ultimately, a large portion of McKinley students will go into tourism, Martin said.

“Programs like these open doors to their future, he said.

Joe Michael Agpaoa, an assistant front desk manager at the Doubletree, said he’s proof positive that early recruitment works.

“I’m from Kauai and started working at the Marriott in high school,” Agpaoa said. “That exposure led me to pursue a tourism degree from the University of Hawaii and complete three internships.”

Agpaoa parlayed his workforce development training into a management job and now advises other young people to do the same.

“I tell students to participate in every program that they can because it shows that they are interested and passionate about a career in tourism, and that carries weight,” he said. “They’ll also learn about the many opportunities that tourism offers in Hawaii. I’ve been very happy with my career choice.”