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ProStart kicks off this fall in Greenville, Jackson, Laurel, Meridian, Moss Point

MRA launches new restaurant-training curriculum

JACKSON – To train students for the hospitality industry, the Mississippi Restaurant Association partnered with the state Department of Education to implement a two-year high school curriculum that begins this fall.

ProStart, a nationally recognized program developed by the Hospitality Business Alliance — the educational component of the National Restaurant Association and the American Hotel/Motel Association — will kick off in five communities this fall: Greenville, Jackson, Laurel, Meridian and Moss Point.

More than 200 students have already registered, including several who will be expedited in the program to sit for the national certification exam next May.

“Our industry is no different than other industries screaming for qualified labor, but our association decided the labor pool had dried up and we had to start developing our own people and marketing our industry as a viable career option at an early age,” said Mike Cashion, executive director of MRA.

“People perceive the food service industry as having minimum wage, low-paying jobs,” he said. “The reality is that there are high school and college students in entry level positions, but the true food service professional positions — chefs, managers, administrators — hold $40,000- to $100,000-positions.

“We need to make sure that the public is aware of that and break this misconception that the food service industry has a hamburger-flipper mentality. It’s not that at all.”

According to the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development, the food service industry employs an average of 63,724 people on a $586-million payroll annually. Last year, statewide eating and drinking establishments reflected revenues of $1.85 billion in sales.

“We’re now talking to junior high school students about the possibilities of long-term careers in the food service industry that doesn’t necessarily include working in a restaurant,” Cashion said. “There are a lot of opportunities, like research and development, finance, marketing and administration that students aren’t aware of. The ProStart program is a work-based learning concept where students will come out with great experience that will pay dividends for them — period.”

Before students can take the national certification exam, 400 hours of paid internship with a recognized mentor must be completed, along with a competency skills checklist. Classroom activities include 24 modules that cover topics from food handling to recipe interpretations.

“This program truly brings industry to the table,” Cashion said. “It will enable students, after they graduate from high school, to enter the workforce at a higher rate of pay because of the completion of the curriculum, or they become eligible for post-secondary education in ProMgmt, a two-year program that gives them national certification as a food service professional. We have articulation agreements with the likes of Culinary Institute of America and are working on local articulation agreements that will allow them to go to junior colleges to enter ProMgmt.”

State Department of Education officials partnered with MRA 18 months ago, after the Hospitality Business Alliance presented an overview of the ProStart program.

After reviewing the program to make sure it would fit, compared it to other programs and received positive feedback from teachers, the state Department of Education reached an agreement: the MRA, funded solely by member dues and fund-raising events, paid for teacher training and classroom supplies, and the DOE purchased textbooks and classroom supplies.

Cashion said he plans to hire an education director to monitor progress in existing classrooms and review applications from schools that want to participate.

Every community in which ProStart is offered has a school-to-career advisory council, comprised of industry representatives, educators and business folks who provide direction for the local program, monitor results, address issues, approve mentors and review students’ progress.

“The pilot program locations were determined by the strength of the instructors with the most experience in the program in communities spread throughout the state,” Cashion said. “These five folks have solid programs in place.”

Instructors include Duncan Chalk of Meridian, Richard Wages of Jackson, Linda Durand of Greenville, Becky Wood of Moss Point and Donna Suddith of Laurel.

“We hope to take ProStart statewide very soon,” Cashion said. “The feedback we have received has been very encouraging.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lynne@thewritingdesk.com or (601) 853-3967.


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