The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ProStart platform recently expanded into North Dakota, marking the 50th state to offer the career and technical education program. Remembering the days when Chicago was the lone participant, and the student reach was in the hundreds, not thousands, is a tough task for Wendi Safstrom.
“It’s overwhelming,” says Safstrom, the NRAEF vice president of programs and administration. “One of the things I think about is that one of our first competitions was 15 years ago. The students were 18 and now they’re 33. And so many of them, because of ProStart, were able to generate an interest in food service careers.”
Safstrom joined in 1999, shortly after the 1997-98 roll out. The Chicago pilot led to Georgia, Florida, West Virginia, Colorado, and then kind of “caught fire” as Safstrom remembers. The North Dakota announcement helped put things in perspective.
From a numbers angle, ProStart’s last census showed that nearly 118,000 students and 1,700 high schools were taking part in the program, which focuses on teaching culinary arts and restaurant management fundamentals to secondary school students. When asked to highlight a specific memory, Safstrom wasn’t sure she could. The amount of students, especially those who were previously tracking in the wrong direction, who have bettered their lives because of their involvement, is humbling, she explains.
“I think there’s a theme. For some of these students, ProStart is their basketball team. ProStart is their band. ProStart is their after-school club. This becomes a group of colleagues, friends, and trusted advisers, and they find themselves feeling included and becoming a part of something great,” Safstrom says. “There are a lot of stories about kids who get into ProStart and it’s what’s kept them in school. It’s what kept them motivated. It’s what maybe ignited something they never even considered would be a potential future, in terms of going to college. It created an awareness of a career path they didn’t even know existed.”
ProStart is a two-year program that can be taught at the participating school or a nearby career technical center, depending on the location and resources. Educators range from teachers branching out to industry professionals delving into the classroom. Students are given a sturdy base of skills, including business and back-of-the house lessons that expand opportunities. Safstrom says that’s one of the aspects of ProStart that she feels surprises some students early on.
“Some kids come into it thinking they want to become the next Iron Chef, or a famous Michelin Star chef,” she says. “Then they realize, ‘Maybe a hot kitchen isn’t the thing for me,’ and they look at the front of the house, or the management side of things and see elements, either human resources, or operations, accounting, marketing, that are attractive to them. Once they get into the course, their eyes are opened up; they see the different kinds of jobs and career that the restaurant industry offers.”
It’s a focus Safstrom believes is opening more and more doors on a daily basis. “We need to sell 1.7 million jobs in the next decade,” she adds. According to NRAEF, the restaurant foodservice industry is the second-largest private sector employer with 14 million jobs.
ProStart, which is also supported by school administrators and state restaurant associations, tries to showcase some students through state and national competitions, and has opportunities for scholarships and work experience. “I think that we have been, over time, able to demonstrate a return on investment to our industry,” Safstrom says. “If these industry folks are smart enough to actively seek out ProStart students, they are hiring kids who are highly engaged, best prepared, and looking for a shot. If there’s any message that we can send out to the industry it’s that they should actively seek these kids out.”
Even if a student doesn’t decide to head to culinary school, or pursue the industry in a different mode, Safstrom says ProStart teaches fundamentals that have a wide translation. “The things that we’re teaching students are really heavily focused on employability, or making them work ready,” she says. “And that’s team work, professional behavior, communication skills, and customer service skills. So, not only are we making them work ready, but we’re getting them ready for life as well.”