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Growing a talent pipeline in the hospitality industry

Christian Hardigree



USF's hospitality major originated at USF Sarasota-Manatee and was expanded to the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses in fall of 2022. Photo: University of South Florida.

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As I walked into our University Student Center, I was immediately greeted by a variety of delicious smells. The warm and sweet scent of curry mingled with savory Korean barbeque, making my mouth start to water. Then I saw our students, ladling out marinated beef, coconut-ginger Mahi Mahi and Vietnamese noodle salad. I grabbed my plate, took my place in line and got ready to dig in.

Our USF School of Hospitality’s International Food and Culture class students and the USF Hospitality Club have been hosting a series of international lunches over the past semester in conjunction with USF Dining. The meals are free and open to the public, if you’re lucky enough to grab a space (they go quickly!). Not only are the lunches delicious, but they also provide students with valuable experience, learning how to plan, develop and execute an event for a large group of hungry customers.

In addition, the lunches provide an opportunity for students and guests to evaluate the geographic, historic, cultural, religious and economic influences that shape food availability and consumption. Plus, it’s some darned good, authentically prepared food! Sometimes students bring in family recipes for the chef (and I’m still trying to get the recipe for the Vietnamese noodle salad – it was fa-‘bull’-ous!).

Anyone who knows me knows that hospitality is in my blood. I served as dean/director of the schools of hospitality at both Metropolitan State University of Denver and Kennesaw State University in Georgia. I grew up in the service industry and worked a variety of jobs, from managing a comedy club to serving tables to overseeing a pool hall. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 1.3 million people are employed in Florida in the leisure and hospitality industry, making it one of our state’s largest employers. So it warms my heart to see students from USF St. Petersburg receiving world-class training in this field.

Since we are a state where tourists are known to flock, you might be surprised to learn the hospitality major is new to USF St. Petersburg. The program is based at USF Sarasota-Manatee and was expanded to the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses in fall of 2022 under the leadership of Cihan Cobanoglu, dean of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. There was definitely a hunger for the major (if you’ll pardon the pun … but again, if you know me, I do adore a good pun). According to Cihan, the number of students taking hospitality courses at USF has increased by as much as 300 percent each semester since the major was expanded.

The program emphasizes hands-on training, like the international lunches in our USC. Hospitality students have the opportunity to shadow and intern at three- to five-star hotels and at USF’s on-campus dining facilities, thanks to new partnerships with McKibbon Hospitality, Aramark and Mainsail Lodging and Development.

Demand for skilled workers in this area is only going to continue to grow. According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s 2023 State of the Hotel Industry Report, U.S. hotels are projected to employ 2.09 million people in 2023, which is down from 2.35 million in 2019, but we’re still coming back from the pandemic. We’re in a position to help our students and the industry by building a strong talent pipeline. Talk about a winning situation all around!

For me, I’m over the moon to see our students prepared for top jobs in an industry that helped shape me into the leader I am today. If you’re in the hospitality industry and are interested in learning more about how you can partner with USF, I encourage you to reach out to me. If you’re lucky, I’ll even invite you to join me at our next international lunch. But you’ll have to get behind me in line.

Christian Hardigree is Regional Chancellor of USF St. Petersburg.





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