By Laura Vaughn, MCFE
Encouraging students to participate in professional organizations can help them excel in their careers.
As president of the Northern Illinois branch of the International Food Service Executives Association (IFSEA) and a culinary educator, I recognize the value of participating in a professional organization. Students and recent graduates, however, can also benefit from belonging to IFSEA, even if their careers in the culinary industry have yet to begin.
Finding jobs in today's market is difficult, and making professional connections is often instrumental to getting one’s foot in the door and advancing in the industry. IFSEA supports students in networking and mentorship, and the more they participate, the greater the benefits to their careers.
My role as a culinary educator is to train students to master the foundations of their craft so they can get a job. But technical skills are only a portion of the tools needed for successful career growth in the hospitality or culinary industry. I'm often asked, “What are some skills that I need to climb the ladder” in order to rise to the top of the field? My reply is this: Mastering the basics of the culinary arts is important, but equally important is making contacts within your chosen field, and learning how to interact professionally with those contacts.
Who belongs to these organizations?
The members of IFSEA include chefs, educators, caterers, recruiters, general managers, special-event planners, food-and-beverage executives, purveyors and more. Virtually any chosen area within the hospitality field is represented in our group, and connecting people to each other is the main purpose to belong to these organizations.
What other benefits are there?
Besides professional networking, most professional organizations have scholarships available to participating students, and often have industry-recognized certification programs that help promote your level of skill and experience to your peers. You'll be able to focus on new and exciting subjects as they become available.
In addition to the scholarships and certifications, IFSEA, as well as other organizations, often offer a demonstration or educational lecture at each local meeting. Topics can vary from professional advice to culinary skills to historical presentations on ingredients. This enables you to keep your skill set current even after graduation.
How to gain entry to professional associations?
Students often feel as though these organizations are an exclusive group for professionals only, but in fact, they welcome students, recent graduates and established professionals. Most professional networking organizations have monthly meetings, and they all are looking for new, interested members to join them. These organizations would not survive without eager new culinarians wanting to be included, and I guarantee that any organization would be thrilled to hear, “I'm new to this field, may I join you at your next meeting?” The meetings are fun, interactive, educational and beneficial to all new culinarians regardless of your level of education and experience.
When is a good time to join?
Join a professional networking organization as soon as you can, and ask to be introduced to others in the group. It's not scary, it's fun, and helps get your name and your face out among your soon-to-be peers. I give all of my students the same advice: Join me at a meeting, whether it's with IFSEA, Pastry Chicago, the American Culinary Federation or a catering group; join me, attend a meeting, see what the group is all about.
Once I'm in a group, what should I do?
Seek out opportunities: We're all in these groups for the same reasons. Don't be shy; ask for business cards or opportunities to intern at locations where members work. You can also ask for career advice and to be notified of upcoming events you might find beneficial.
Because of these opportunities, my students have received job offers, scholarships and volunteering opportunities, and are working at the top restaurants and hotels in Chicago. They're being introduced to even more people through the new contacts they've made, and the sky's the limit as far as they can go.
The 2010 IFSEA Conference & Trade Show is in Reno, Nev., April 15-18. For more information on the International Food Service Executives Association (IFSEA), visit www.ifsea.com.
Laura Vaughn is a pastry-chef instructor at Washburne Culinary Institute, Chicago, and a Master Certified Foodservice Executive through IFSEA. She was the 2009 recipient of the 20th Anniversary Chefs of Tomorrow™ grant from Olson Communications, which she will use to attend the World Pastry Forum in Phoenix this summer.