ProStart feeds N.J. restaurant industry’s diminishing workforce

By Marilou Halvorsen, president, NJ Restaurant & Hospitality Association

Nearly a decade after it began, ProStart is precisely what it sounds like: a career and technical education program focusing on ingraining culinary arts and restaurant management fundamentals in high school students.

The program, which grew to reach nearly 140,000 students nationwide in 2016, graduates students proficient in knife cuts and basic costing, as well as something even more valuable: professional development. Critical thinking, teamwork, dependability, professionalism and time management are skills that will serve ProStart participants for the rest of their lives, in any career they choose.

Today, New Jersey’s ProStart program is the only homegrown educational program acting as a feeder program for the diminishing workforce of our state’s $16 billion restaurant industry. An industry projected to grow from 9 percent to over 16 percent of the state’s employment in the next decade.

With the growing challenge of filling seasonal and year-round positions, New Jersey’s ProStart Program’s rise is a timely one. Every fall, our state’s youth flock to college, many out-of-state, most incurring tremendous debt and frequently only choosing to return to the restaurant industry until they get a “real job.” Oddly, what society once considered a stepping stone to a well-paying career is now merely a rest stop. The trend isn’t promising for the industry or for patrons, but the ProStart program offers hope for the future.

For the first time in the 75-year history of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, the outcry from members became so loud that it had to take action. The NJRHA teamed up with Fairleigh Dickinson University and New Jersey’s Department of Labor & Workforce Development to issue email blasts and create a job board to increase the exposure of industry opportunities, ranging from sous chefs to managers.

Support of ProStart is critical given that it clearly combats many problems our state faces: shortage of skilled workers, lack of career opportunities for youth, and students’ soaring college debt.

Participating students are immersed in a leading-edge curriculum that develops highly trained workers, fully prepared to enter the workforce or pursue additional training upon graduation. Over 2,000 New Jersey high school students are currently enrolled in the program, many from economically disadvantaged areas in our state.

In fact, research shows that high school students involved in career and technical education programs are more engaged, perform better, and graduate at a rate fifteen percent higher than the average student. With a clear-cut value to students, these programs also have value for businesses: ProStart students graduate ServSafe qualified — every restaurant in our state is mandated to have at least one employee with this certification.

This month, some 80 high school students from four New Jersey counties will arrive in Jersey City to participate in the 11th Annual NJ ProStart Competition. While thousands of students participate in this program statewide, these students dedicate hours of their time, sometimes seven days a week, to prepare for this contest, all for a chance to represent the Garden State at the National ProStart Competition.

During the competition, students race the clock to develop complex flavors and ornately plated dishes using only two butane burners. Separately, management students compete in a Shark Tank-style competition, pitching a unique restaurant concept, business plan, budget and timeline to a panel of professional judges.

It’s a regal battle and one that holds great promise for a rising generation of aspiring chefs and restaurant entrepreneurs.

Bringing ProStart to every county or someday every high school in New Jersey, is a beneficial move for our economy, the restaurant and foodservice industry, and more importantly in the lives of its participants.