Solving the labor puzzle through partnerships

As college operators continue to face a labor shortage, culinary internships with local schools are helping fill staffing gaps.
Illustration by Midjourney and Nico Heins

In 1999, the dining team at Boston College (BC Dining) in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts launched its own internship program. Rather than work with its own students on campus, however, the team was forced to look beyond the four walls of campus.  

“We're not a culinary school and we're not a hospitality school,” says Associate Director of Auxiliary Services Beth Burns. “So, we've had to go out over the years and really recruit.”

Boston College is one of many schools across the country partnering with local high schools and technical schools in the area to provide culinary experience to students and also help with staffing.

Labor continues to be a pain point for college dining operators. Respondents to FoodService Director’s State of C&U survey shared a variety of ways they’re trying to make up for lost staff, including cross-training employees, utilizing technology like self-serve checkout and offering more speed scratch menu items.

Boston College has implemented some of those strategies but has also relied on its internship program to bolster its number of employees.

Pounding the pavement

Similar to when the program started in the 90’s, Burns and the team place high importance on getting face-to-face time with potential interns as part of their recruitment strategy to this day.

Having lived in the Boston area for over 20 years, Burns relies on the network she’s built up over the years to reach potential interns. The dining team, for example, has strong ties to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association and relies on that connection as well.

Once a student is accepted into the program, they are invited to campus to speak with a dining team member.

“We really make it as if they are equals to full timers,” Burns says. “Each student is given an interview {where we talk about] their strengths, their weaknesses.”

Interns are often asked what their “roadmap” is and what area of food service they’re interested in. Once they decide what they want to focus on, they’re placed with a manager within that area of focus who provides mentorship and helps them grow their skillset.

“Not only are they a part of our labor force, but we really look at it as we're really mentoring and developing and coaching,” says Burns.

The mindset of providing real learning experiences to interns is also present at the University of Richmond, which has been offering a high school internship program for over a decade and recently started offering college internships in 2021.

Interns are exposed to all the different areas of the dining program, including catering, bakery, production and station cooking and are treated as if they were full-time members of the team.

“Kitchens always operate better when you teach and learn, and there is no better way than these types of programs,” University of Richmond Executive Chef Tyler Betzhold shared over email. “The students are immersed in the kitchen like any of our employees.”

Recovering after COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic did have a large impact on BC’s internship program, Burns says. “It decimated the hospitality business. We were unable to recruit.”

Things like COVID-19 vaccination requirements and other pandemic protocol also made it harder to attract interns, she adds.

Slowly but surely, however, the program is on the upswing again. About two years ago, the team started to welcome potential interns back to campus to take tours.  They have also resumed going out into the community to meet with prospective interns.

While the dining team does promote the program on social media and with physical ads throughout the Boston area, ultimately, Burns believes getting in-person time with students and putting in the effort to connect with others in the food industry at-large is the secret to building up the program.

“I really believe that it's your networking,” she says. “It's taking the time. It's being a part of the industry.”

Celebrating the wins

The hard work put into the program post-COVID, has paid off for BC Dining.

“This year is the best year with student labor that I have seen since 2020,” says Burns.  

In FoodService Director’s state of C&U survey, Boston College’s Food Service Director Beth Emery shared that the team is only short staffed by about 1 to 5% this school year.

Over at the University of Richmond, the team has plans to expand the collegiate portion its program.

“We plan to do this across campus, and then the next phase would include front-of-house management as well,” says Betzhold.

Multiple employees who now work full-time for Richmond dining started as interns, Betzhold adds, and while not everyone who participates in the program winds up back at the school, the team still loves keeping in touch with former interns.

“For the students who truly want this as a career, they stay in contact with us, which we love,” says Betzhold. “Nothing is better than seeing a student from the past in the kitchen catching up with all they are doing.”

The same is true for BC Dining, who has had many program success stories over the years.

“We have one gal who went from a high school student, and she is now a sous chef at one of our busiest operations,” says Burns.

Working at a college dining program is an experience unlike any other offered in the industry, Burns says, and the team tries to make sure the interns are provided with an environment where they can learn and grow.

“I feel like we're a game changer for individuals,” she says. “There's a lot of competitors out there in hospitality, but for what we do in college and universities, it's pretty exciting.”



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