Building Skills and a Better Future: How the Hospitality Sector Can Support Survivors and At-Risk Youth to Achieve Sustainable Employment
September 27, 2021
“Towering above Mumbai’s upscale commercial hub, Four Seasons combines chic modern style with an intimate, boutique atmosphere and panoramic sea views. Let our expert team connect you with local culture, shopping and entertainment. At day’s end, return to our rooftop AER – Bar and Lounge for sunset cocktails and mingling with Mumbai’s elite.”
The website for the Four Seasons Hotel in Mumbai sells an experience of luxury and indulgence, one that appeals to many travellers, both foreign and domestic. But it is not one that youth often imagine themselves a part of, especially youth from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Though many young people may not envision their futures in a five-star hotel, Sustainable Hospitality Alliance (the Alliance) understands the tremendous opportunity that the hospitality industry affords. Unlike many other sectors, the bar for entry into the hospitality sector is not set at education or even job experience. Rather, there is a unique appreciation for self-confidence, on-the-job training and practical skills development that opens the hospitality industry to youth of any background. The Alliance works with hotel members and philanthropic, government, nonprofit, and private sector partners across the globe to connect young people with these opportunities. In helping youth develop skills to advance in the hospitality sector or related professions, the Alliance is reducing youth vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation and supporting young people to achieve financial security and a better future.
In 2020, 1 in 5 youth were not in employment, education or training (NEET). This number continues to rise as the world struggles under the weight of a global pandemic. In many cases, youth were the first let go during economic shutdowns- 1 in 6 are estimated to have lost their jobs since the outbreak began. While one month of being unemployed at age 18-20 can cause a permanent income loss of 2% in the future, poverty, malnutrition and financial insecurity are the consequences youth experience more immediately. Confronting increasingly desperate circumstances, young people are more susceptible to exploitation, abuse, and modern slavery.
Despite the heavy blow that COVID-related travel restrictions and national lockdowns dealt to the industry, hospitality can play a critical role in recovery. It remains an important driver of economic growth and job opportunities, and provides young people the chance to develop skills and experience to ensure sustainable employment, within the industry and beyond. Though GFEMS partnership with the Alliance began in 2018, the devastating effects of COVID have highlighted the significance of the intervention. In supporting young people to develop professional and personal skills and practical experience, the Alliance is building youth resilience and empowering young people with greater control over their futures.
A Partnership to Reduce Youth Vulnerabilities and Support Young Survivors
The Alliance initiated its youth employment program in 2004 to support at-risk youth (ages 18-24), including those from impoverished communities or low-income families, those living with disabilities, survivors of human trafficking, and refugees, to achieve sustainable employment. Viewing hospitality as a solution to the problem of youth unemployment, the Alliance has forged partnerships with over 200 hotels in four countries since it began 15 years ago. To date, over 6,000 young people have graduated from the Alliance’s youth employment program.
GFEMS partnered with the Alliance as part of its anti-trafficking efforts in Vietnam and Maharashtra, India, two regions with high prevalence of sex trafficking. Through this partnership, the Alliance is directly engaging survivors and at-risk individuals in its employment program, and supporting them to develop skills and experience to make them less vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. While this project is making a difference in the lives of the youth it engages, it is also informing the development of a model to be scaled and replicated across countries and industries.
A Program to Build Survivor Skills and Confidence
The Alliance’s youth employment program begins and ends at partnership. To be successful and sustainable, it needs both hotels to conduct practical training and community organizations to connect young people with the opportunity. To build these partnerships, the Alliance first conducts workshops in the region of operation to introduce representatives of hotels and local nonprofits to the program and share best practices for working with survivors. Participating nonprofit partners, including anti-trafficking organizations and youth shelters, commit to mobilizing survivors and at-risk youth for the program. (Some even travelling to harder-to-reach but high prevalence areas to engage vulnerable youth.) Hotels that join the program agree to provide on-site skills training or apprenticeships for youth who complete initial training.
Once partnerships are established, youth are enrolled and begin one month of “pre-training” focused on soft skills development. Consisting of three modules- Life Skills, English for Hospitality, and Introduction to Hospitality- the employment program curriculum develops core employability skills that are relevant to the hospitality sector. In honing digital skills, building financial literacy, and learning to effectively communicate, students are equipped with skills that transfer to virtually any industry. The program also strengthens confidence and job-readiness, soft skills to set young people on a successful career path.
When core training is completed, students are placed for practical skills training, generally with local hotels. On-site training typically lasts two months. After successful completion, graduates are supported to find employment in the hospitality sector or related fields.
“The training has made me employable and capable to be part of the housekeeping team in a hotel. I am learning how to provide service to guests. This training has prepared me to be confident and speak up. I feel self-motivated, excited, and willing to learn.”
Lessons to Build Stronger Programs and Scalable Solutions
Programs are rarely implemented without challenges. Learning from these challenges and adapting to meet them is how we can build effective and sustainable strategies to end trafficking and modern slavery. During the second year of program implementation, circumstances on the ground supported the decision to end the youth employment program in Vietnam. As many of the students enrolled in the Hanoi program came from rural provinces, a change in government policy that shifted support for trafficking survivors to their regions of origin deterred many from traveling to Hanoi. With the decentralization of government support, most survivors chose to remain near family and community networks. Indeed, several of the Alliance’s nonprofit partners reported that their shelters in Hanoi no longer housed any survivors.
Adding to this challenge was an important learning uncovered during the course of program implementation. While encouraging that over sixty per cent of Hanoi graduates did in fact secure full-time employment in the hospitality sector, almost half of those who enrolled in the program did not graduate. The Alliance worked with its local nonprofit partners to understand why students were dropping out of the program at such a high rate. The key finding was that location mattered. Students from rural provinces had trouble adapting in Hanoi. Separated from family and community, they lacked networks of support to fully engage with the program.
Though disheartening, this learning, reinforced by findings from other GFEMS-funded projects in Vietnam, demonstrates the significance of locally-accessible programming and tailoring programs to match survivor needs. The Alliance and GFEMS shifted remaining funding to scale up programming in India, but the Hanoi program should not be counted a loss. From this knowledge, the Alliance and GFEMS are building stronger programs, programs that take account of local circumstances and survivor needs, programs that can be scaled-up effectively within the hotel industry and replicated across sectors.
Challenges to program implementation were not confined to Hanoi. Like the rest of the world, the Alliance experienced the disruptions wrought by a global health crisis and national lockdowns. The hospitality industry was especially hard hit. Many hotels and restaurants were forced to shutter their doors and others froze new hiring, making new placements all but impossible. The Alliance also had to suspend in-person soft skills trainings indefinitely.
While no one could have predicted a global pandemic, the Alliance worked quickly to mitigate its impact on the project and more importantly, on the young people it supported. Almost immediately, the Alliance began outreach to students engaged in the employment program. These young people were provided mental health and professional counselling through one-on-one calls with trained staff from Alliance’s local partner, Kherwadi.
Moreover, the Alliance very quickly transitioned its soft-skills training to an online format to ensure students could continue learning even during the chaos and uncertainty of COVID. Further adapting to COVID challenges, the Alliance collaborated with GFEMS to find new practical skills training opportunities. Identifying industries where students’ soft skills readily transferred and where students could still gain relevant experience, the Alliance began offering placements in healthcare, food & beverage, housekeeping, and customer service. Though some students opted to defer placement until positions could be secured in the hospitality sector, many others readily engaged with these opportunities. Despite the disruptions caused by COVID, 68% of students who entered the Mumbai program in summer 2020 graduated by spring 2021. 74% had secured employment before leaving the program.
The Alliance’s youth employment program in Mumbai continues to thrive. The success of the program inspired two additional nonprofit organizations to partner with the Alliance last quarter to mobilize more students. Drop-out rates have steadily declined and students are increasingly asserting more agency in decisions about their futures. Placements may be taking a bit longer now, but it is no longer because of COVID. With enhanced knowledge and confidence, students are more aware of their options and waiting for the right employment opportunity.
“The training program has helped me to be a courageous and independent individual. I have a strong feeling that the things that I have learned in this training will help me to work towards building my career. I wish to work and make it to a higher position in a top-tiered hotel.”
In June, the Alliance publicly launched the curriculum that lies at the heart of its youth employment program. The core employability curriculum, developed with inputs from industry experts and education specialists, is designed to empower youth with relevant and transferable job skills. It is a free resource, for use by community and training organizations around the world. In supporting young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to build skills and confidence, the Alliance is opening sustainable employment pathways, and reducing vulnerability to abuse and exploitation.
Programs referenced in this article are funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.