The mandate was straightforward: develop and create a program to place young Caymanians in the hospitality industry, where traditionally they have been underrepresented, according to Charles Clifford, the Cayman Islands' minister of tourism.

Thus, the Tourism Apprenticeship Training Program was born, beginning its pilot year on Sept. 10 with a class of 20 Caymanians, many of them fresh out of high school and others already in the industry and trying to advance their careers.

Participants embarked on a one-year, intensive course to set them on a path toward one of four occupations in a career in the hospitality industry: food preparation, food-and-beverage operations, front-office operations and housekeeping (beginning at a supervisory level).

The 20 apprentices were selected from among a wider pool of applicants by an Apprentice Council made up of private sector representatives. Each of the 20 apprentices received one-year scholarship packages valued at between $12,250 and $18,375, depending upon which of the four career routes they selected.

The scholarship covered tuition, uniforms, laptops and materials.

"The program is designed to create a cadre of Caymanian hospitality professionals in occupations traditionally underrepresented by Caymanians but with respectable compensation levels and career potential," Clifford said. "Apprentices should walk away at the end of the school year with the technical skills and work experience necessary to succeed in today's fast-paced tourism industry."

The program also hopes to guarantee a supply of Caymanian workers "who will raise the level of professional competency within the tourism workforce, bring a distinct cultural flavor to local tourism products and services and give much needed stability to the industry," said Clifford.

The 38-week course, based on the philosophy of learning by doing, combines on-the-job training with classroom instruction. The program is divided into three stages, according to Sharon Banfield, the Cayman Islands' deputy director of tourism product development.

The first stage, which runs from September to mid-December, centers on classes conducted at the University College of the Cayman Islands in George Town and at the International College of the Cayman Islands in Newlands, in the East End district of Grand Cayman.

The courses are taught by hospitality instructors and other faculty members at both colleges.

"These are foundation courses in six areas deemed to be important for an apprentice to master before venturing on to join the work force," Banfield said.

The courses include computer knowledge; communications; customer service; basic math skills; tourism studies with a focus on the importance of tourism to the local economy and of the benefits derived from practicing sustainable tourism; and professional, personal and workplace development, with an emphasis on public speaking, time management and etiquette.

The class day runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

In the second stage from January through April, each of the 20 apprentices will enter one of the four areas of concentration they selected during the application process.

"This stage is a mix of classroom and lab work, covering core competencies and technical skills required for each occupation," Banfield said. "The class day is longer because the apprentices will be making site visits and establishing contacts with the private sector."

The labs simulate a working environment. For food preparation, for example, a chef takes the apprentice through all the paces, using materials and equipment needed for that occupation.

In the final stage from May through August, apprentices gain experience working at hotels and restaurants on Grand Cayman. Each receives a salary as if they were full-time employees of that facility. 

Throughout the school year, each apprentice is guided by a mentor, who assesses the student's progress and makes recommendations.

"We have people from the private sector who serve as mentors, and we have a career guidance program to assist apprentices who may be lagging behind in certain areas," Banfield said. "No one gets behind."

Apprentices must take and pass a final exam administered by CaribCert, a professional certification program designed for the Caribbean tourism industry, based on standards established for 45 occupations in the tourism and hospitality industries.

An apprentice can retake the exam one time if a passing grade is not met on the first go-round.

"Throughout the year, we are stressing the seriousness of this program," Banfield said. "This is a full-time course, and each apprentice has to complete the entire program in order to graduate, attend 90% of the classes and pass at least 85% of the course work."

Clifford said the CaribCert certification is a "sign of a competent industry professional."

"CaribCert professionals are skilled and proud employees who consistently exceed guests' expectations, which boosts repeat visits and higher profits," he said.

Based on positive results from the first year, tourism officials plan to repeat and possibly expand the Tourism Apprenticeship Training Program next year.

"This is a renewable program," Banfield said. "Feedback from the private sector and the apprentices themselves will help shape new areas of study and focus."

A Web site detailing the program as well as marketing materials are in the works, as well.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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