Fast Track: The hospitality trade

Tourism, seldom a career choice for graduates, has been given an upgrade
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When Rob Devlin embarked on a degree in popular music and cultural sociology, he had every intention of becoming a music journalist. But only a few months after leaving university, his aspirations not only changed direction completely, but he found himself reaching them within an industry traditionally sneered at by graduates: tourism. What's more, he's earning double what he expected, with double the responsibility.

"I started working at the Granada Studio Tour in Manchester to earn some extra cash while I was a student," he explains. "Now, as entertainments manager, I'm responsible for a team of 70 people. The next step is becoming operations manager. I never dreamt of coming so far so fast.'

The English Tourist Board (ETB) has found it so hard to attract graduates such as Rob, however, that it has launched an urgent recruitment drive. With at least 15 per cent of all vacancies remaining unfilled at any time, the ETB has started a net-based initiative - Career Compass.

"It's an international first in tackling careers information and job opportunities across the breadth of the travel, tourism and hospitality industries," explains Richard Allen, head of training and business support at ETB. "Tourism is one of the top five industries in the UK, providing 1.7 million jobs - and yet young people still tend to consider it as an option for the second best. We want to show this image as unfair and inaccurate.'

But, he admits, it will be no mean feat. The industry has not been good on putting out stories of career successes, and with the rise in the number of degrees specifically focusing on tourism, job-seekers often wrongly assume this is now a prerequisite for any of the decent positions. "In reality, many graduates choose tourism as a career after they've finished university and therefore have completely unrelated degrees. The reason this is not necessarily a problem is because a lot of the companies in tourism believe previous experience is less important than the individual's potential." In other words, for graduate recruits, the subject of your degree may not even be relevant.

Indeed, Julie Ashton was running a bar in a popular holiday resort - in which she was turning over pounds 400,000 and was responsible for the development of 14 staff - by the time she was 25, just two years out of university. All this with a degree in fine art. "My friends started to envy me immediately - not only because of the status I'd achieved but because the work is such fun. That's exactly what you're there for - to make sure people have fun." But, she claims, it's harder work than she could ever have imagined. "You have to be available for at least 14 hours a day."

Andrew Palmer of the British Institute of Innkeeping remarks: "In the past, a career in hospitality - which accounts for 80 per cent of tourism - was frowned upon by many as being frivolous. But today's companies need graduates to survive, so they're investing in training and good salaries."

Visitor attractions such as Chessington World of Adventures and Thorpe Park, and hotel chains like Trusthouse Forte, are following suit, creating an environment in which graduates can make an immediate impact. But most companies say graduates must be prepared to pitch in with the mundane jobs to get a feel for what it takes to make the day-to-day operations run smoothly and effectively.

"Chessington has made the work for its staff extremely varied," says spokesperson Charlie Broom. "It can mean doing things managers in other industries wouldn't dream of, but it makes the job far more exciting."

Small wonder that other sectors of the economy are recognising the skills- development that people working within tourism are acquiring, says Richard Allen. "Skills learned in tourism-based industries are transferable. So it's not as if staff are ever putting all their eggs in one basket."

According to Brian Prescott, partnership development manager of the Travel and Tourism Programme, enthusiasm, ambition, excellent customer service skills and basic business awareness are what the tourism industry looks for. The ability for candidates to inspire and motivate their team members, have new ideas and deliver more than is expected is paramount - a fact that Sarah Scarratt knows all too well.

"I got a degree in French, rather than anything vaguely tourism-related, but wound up running guided tours for students at Beaulieu, the national motor museum," she explains. "I'd helped out in the Easter holidays, and was offered a job because I'd revealed the skills they were looking for. It was quite unexpected, but it's been so worthwhile. There are now around 35,000 students visiting a year, which is a hell of a lot to be in charge of, and I've had experiences that I'd never have had anywhere else. In fact, it wasn't long before I was promoting the tours abroad on a regular basis.'

But the Scottish National Party is not quite so optimistic about the future of careers within tourism as its English counterparts. "I know Scotland's tourist boards are very keen on increasing the training of people in the industry," says Alisdair Morgan, employment spokesperson. But, like English tourist boards, the problem is they are hampered by discretionary funding, which prevents them developing long-term strategies to promote the sector.

"They literally exist from year to year. The Government has to say that tourism is important in order for this problem to be overcome," he claims. "In some areas, it is the biggest industry." In Scotland, for instance, tourism is bigger than the whisky, oil, car and agricultural industries combined in terms of employment. But with little job security, graduates may be put off.

Nevertheless, claims Brian Prescott, with an increase in staff at graduate level, the success of British tourism could grow to such an extent that funding is made more permanent. "It can make a career in tourism even more attractive to graduates because it's more of a challenge,' he says.

Rob Devlin agrees. "Trying to help run any business which relies on visitors keeps you on your feet. And that's what makes it so satisfying when it works." It's high time that the negative image of the industry held by so many students, parents and educationalists is seen for what it is, he claims - completely outdated.