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Most students staying on Hattiesburg campus

Enrollment in USM Gulf Coast hospitality program low

LONG BEACH — The Department of Hospitality Management at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) has the distinction of being the only USM department that is based on the Coast. That decision was made with an eye to serving the rapidly growing casino industry on the Coast that now employs about 17,000 people.

However, Coast enrollment in the four-year program has been disappointing. Most of the students in this major have remained on the Hattiesburg campus. With a labor shortage on the Coast, there is great demand for workers at the casinos. But since the casinos often start employees with college degrees at the similar salary as those without degrees, there appears to be little incentive to get a degree for someone planning to work in the casino industry.

“We were told there was a tremendous demand for what we have to offer,” said Dr. Joe Hutchinson, chair of USM’s hospitality management department. “That hasn’t been the case. There is no question there is a demand for employees. But we don’t need universities to train entry-level workers. And it is the perception of some people that what we’re here to do is to help solve the labor shortage of hourly workers. That isn’t the mission of a four-year university.”

High school and college graduates often start in similar positions with Coast casinos, managers are promoted from within and most casinos don’t have formal entry-level management training programs for college graduates. Instead, college graduates often start at the front desk or other entry-level hourly positions.

“College grads aren’t buying into it,” Hutchinson said. “It is one of those issues that happens when you have a real young industry with a labor shortage that doesn’t have structure to deal with the type of individuals and product we have, which is a college graduate.”

Instead of having managers who know how to cook, wait tables or check in guests, Hutchinson believes the casino industry would be better served by having managers who are trained in computers, operations, human resources, marketing, finance and accounting, management information systems and law — in short, training in what it takes to operate the entire business. He argues that what makes a good cook doesn’t necessarily make a good manager, so training managers in the kitchen isn’t as important as the kind of business skills taught in a classroom and reinforced in the workplace.

“We are trying to keep focused on our mission and our purpose, which is to prepare managers versus hourly employees,” Hutchinson said. “This isn’t a vocational-technical program. USM has a Culinary Arts Academy on the Coast, and there is more interest from casinos for this because this represents a supply of students who have technical kitchen experience.”

Currently, only 25 students are enrolled in the program on the Coast. Another 140 students are enrolled in the program in Hattiesburg. Hutchinson said that, as can be seen by the enrollment figures, the decision to base the program on the Coast was a long-term commitment.

“The industry, USM and the legislature felt strongly we needed to base our operations down here and build from this base,” Hutchinson said. “This is the sixth year of the program here. Obviously we had hoped to have more students here, but the job market is so good and there is such a labor shortage that it is hard to build college enrollment. With the casinos particularly there is such an abundance of job opportunities.”

However, there doesn’t appear to be a demand at the casinos for employees with a four-year degree. That makes it difficult to attract students to the USM hospitality program on the Coast.

The Department of Hospitality Management offers a four-year degree program for a bachelor of science in hospitality management. It is the only stand-alone department of its kind in the state. The curriculum focuses in the area of hotel, restaurant and tourism management, and also includes training in the area of conventions and meetings. Upon graduation students are prepared for entry-level management positions in the hospitality and tourism industry.

Many USM hospitality graduates are going out of state. Starting salaries are often higher, with more opportunities for promotion especially working for large chains like Red Lobsters, Chili’s, Houston’s and Marriott.

Hutchinson said they have been trying to work with the casino industry to educate them that USM is preparing entry-level managers, not entry-level employees.

“With such an urgency to fill positions at the lower level, higher education has not been a priority at this point,” Hutchinson said. “This is such a young industry on the Coast, and right now there is a sense of immediacy filling entry-level positions.”

Despite the challenges, Hutchinson remains optimistic about the potential of the hospitality program on the Coast.

“We’re still trying to determine what the market is on the Coast for what we have to offer,” Hutchinson said. “Part of my job is to educate the industry about what we do because they don’t fully understand. To the casinos, experience is pretty much it. That is the most important criteria. But we’re not in business of training lower-level people. We have more of a long-term approach in developing managers.”

Hutchinson believes some of his full-time students are often better off living in Hattiesburg where they can work part-time for a restaurant chain while completing their degree requirements. Several students who have transferred down to the Coast for jobs at the casinos have left school. Hattiesburg is a college town, and restaurants are more accustomed to using part-time employees whose primary goal is completing college.

“Casinos aren’t prepared for the student who is going to college full time,” Hutchinson said. “Many are working overtime and no longer have time for class. Some who lack only a semester to graduate have dropped out. Most casinos have tuition reimbursement programs, but they don’t seem to place a high value on a degree, and often don’t make accommodations for full-time students.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.


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