In Case Anyone Has Forgotten…
By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC
The typical product success curve involves an introductory phase, initial excitement, first rapid and then tepid growth, peak, and then decline. This has proven truthful for nearly every product or service – including education.
Without trying to focus on the negative – all indications are the overall education model in the U.S. has peaked and is on the first phase of decline. This includes higher education and culinary education in our case. Some may claim everything is fine in their Pleasantville environment, but I am convinced there are too many indicators to the contrary for us to ignore.
The businesses that continue to be successful for the long run are ones that anticipate this inevitable occurrence and plan for it. These are the businesses that are in the process of developing the next product, concept, or service, the minute that the current one is introduced so that even during the rapid growth phase they are looking for the right time to introduce something new.
Education, and in our case – culinary education - has changed very little over the past three decades of substantial growth. “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” is a mantra most of us bought into. Well, guess what – it is broke and the time for correction is here.
For several years in my Think Tank columns I have been focusing somewhat indirectly on this topic. Now, it is time for an intervention.
Am I being over-reactive?
Is this really as serious a problem as this article portrays?
Look at the indicators:
- Major companies who dedicated millions of dollars to the development of multiple culinary schools across the country are closing their doors.
- Many culinary schools are finding it more and more difficult to meet their admissions goals.
- The Federal Government is zeroing in on “gainful employment” and demanding that technical schools (especially those that are proprietary) demonstrate gainful employment sufficient enough for students to pay back student loans.
- Private culinary school tuition far exceeds a graduate’s ability to pay back loans in a timely fashion.
- Those expensive kitchen labs that for years were supported by equipment manufacturers are much harder to build without substantial investment from the college where they reside.
- College administrators are beginning to realize that culinary programs represent the most expensive real estate in the institution and cost more per square foot than the return from student tuition.
- All of those students who were attracted to culinary arts for the glamor portrayed on the Food Network suddenly realized that work in restaurants is very hard, unforgiving, and lackluster in terms of compensation. The “fun” of working in restaurants pales in comparison to the back breaking, repetitive work that is necessary day in and day out.
- Accrediting body requirements for degrees have forced schools to water down what they can offer in terms of “real-life” culinary education.
- With over 1,000 culinary programs in the United States, many schools have taken on a far more lax attitude toward accepting students who might not have the “right stuff” to succeed.
- Completion rates are lower than the norm for other college programs. The lower rate is straining schools’ abilities to meet the demands of the Federal Government for distribution of federal aid.
- The restaurant industry continues to grow with more than 1 million restaurants in the U.S. and their greatest challenge is finding enough, reasonably qualified candidates to work in their operations. They claim that far too few culinary graduates are actually able to meet the demands of the job.
- Far too many culinary graduates expect to start at the sous chef level (oftentimes because of the sizeable investment they made in their education) and as a result are not willing to start at the bottom and work their way up. Very few restaurants would hire a student at the sous chef level. And, I would worry about those who did.
- Most restaurants still do not pay enough, nor can they afford to, for entry-level positions, and rarely do they offer any benefits. This is not acceptable for a college graduate.
- A very high percentage of culinary graduates quickly make the decision to leave the field they studied for and select a business segment that is more life friendly.
- With all of this creeping into the press, fewer and fewer young people are selecting restaurant work as their career choice. It is much different than it was just 15 years ago.
The list goes on and on, but you get the picture. Just as the restaurant industry must look seriously at change, so too must culinary education. If you want your program to not just survive, but thrive, then it is time to have serious conversations about what the model should look like now and in the future. What value will an expensive culinary degree, that fails to meet the expectations of the industry it serves, have in the future? How will you and your institution be able to provide a high quality education, adequately prepare people for a life in food, and meet the enrollment needs of the institution that will allow the program to remain viable?
The first step is to admit that there is a problem and that we (education) is, at least part of the cause. How will we lead the charge toward change?
I would propose that we start the conversation now, that we engage our faculty, the companies who recruit our students, chefs and bakers, industry organizations like the ACF, RBA, RCA, and CAFÉ in a vibrant dialogue with open minds toward reimagining the education model.