Many Californians get their start—and careers—in this huge economic sector

580 200 Ed Coghlan

(Photo: Mike McBey/Flickr)

When the California Community Colleges Strong Workforce Program identified ten economic sectors vital to the state's economy, it created one hybrid—for retail, hospitality and tourism. The new Sector Navigator for that dynamic part of our economy is Joy Hermsen, who recently shared with us some of the work being done by the Colleges.

What makes this sector a critical component of California's economy? 

The Retail, Hospitality and Tourism sector (R/H/T) is a huge economic driver in California’s economy. First of all, this sector represents a lot of the dollars each of us spend because we want to. Everything you’ve purchased for yourself — your clothes, food in your refrigerator, the cool things that go in your office and home — these are all parts of the retail landscape. Every time you want to go out with family and friends to celebrate — at a restaurant, pub, winery, café — this is part of hospitality. Every vacation you want to go on — whether it’s in the great outdoors (on the beach, in the mountains, or on a lake or river), a cruise, a visit to wine country, a road trip on the backroads, or a visit to some kind of attraction (theme park, museum, music festival), that’s tourism. It’s big and it’s fun.

Secondly, California is a very valuable “brand” worldwide. Tourism brings lots of dollars to regions from outside California. Of all travel spending in the U.S. in 2018, California alone was responsible for a whopping 15%. In our state economy, tourism accounted for over $140 billion in visitor spending in 2018, according to Visit California*, reflecting 5% growth over the previous year. Retail employment is estimated to be over 25% of California’s workforce. RHT is by far the largest employer in the state, with estimates nearing 5 million jobs (including direct and indirect jobs).*

What are employers telling you that they need from the community colleges for workforce development?

There are several things employers tell us they need. Any access we can give them to skilled workers is a huge help to them. In retail, employers just don’t have enough workers who will come to work and perform consistently. There are not enough workers for the positions open, and those that come are not as skilled. The issues for hospitality and tourism are similar, however, workers tend to make more money in these industries thanks to the tipping structure.

What I’m hearing employers say they need from us is help to engage with our students. Many businesses are eager to find ways to work with the California Community Colleges to build those much-needed work-based learning experiences we talk about — we just need to help the employers find the easiest way to work with our colleges. Working directly with industry, I need to work statewide directing regional work to make it as easy as possible for any employer to connect with colleges in each region. In the past, since it can be different at each college, it can be a slow process for an employer — we’re working to make that a much easier interface.

There is also a need to help employers build the skills of their current employees, which helps with employee retention and motivation in this very tight labor market. We can help with that, whether it’s custom training through contract education or plugging them into existing courses and programs.

What successes are you having with employers already—and how are students benefiting? 

In 2016, we began a Retail Ready pilot with a successful retailer. The pilot ran for four semesters and just recently concluded. The model had a simple three-step process:

  1. The company engaged with students on campus by providing in-class speakers, sharing about career opportunities, skills required for success, and the company’s culture.
  2. Giving students guidance on how to stand out from the crowd. The students received invaluable information on resume writing, networking, and interviewing directly from the company’s recruiting team.
  3. Real-world experience. The class took a trip to the nearest retail store to put their networking skills to action and to get a behind-the-scenes look into the company’s retail operations. Students interested in career opportunities were encouraged to apply and several were hired.

This model is so simple and effective. I’m building plans to apply it to other businesses — in retail, hospitality and tourism in the coming years.

Another area of success has been at Columbia College, a small college of fewer than 3,000 students not far from Yosemite National Park. They’ve built a model apprenticeship program there with Black Oak Casino Resort, Rush Creek Lodge and Evergreen Lodge. The program has trained many students to complete a rigorous RHT apprenticeship while earning money and completing their education. It’s so successful that the demand for students who’ve been through the program far exceeds the supply. Columbia College also began investing in creating satellite programs in distant rural areas in order to expand the reach and boost completion of programs. This is a model we hope to replicate in other remote areas throughout our state.

We know that early learning opportunities—internships and other real-world experiences—are a priority. How is that effort going?

In addition to what we’ve already discussed, we’re figuring out how to make it as easy as possible for employers to plug into campuses to provide these work-based learning experiences. I have a brand-new team of regional folks, and we’re looking at how our colleagues in the other sectors have succeeded so we can get things rolling as quickly as possible for our students.

Looking forward to the next year, what are the challenges and the opportunities in your sector? 

There are exciting jobs in the sector — many of which require people to start in what can be perceived as entry-level jobs that don’t lead anywhere. However, the sector is also one of the only ones where that entry-level work is rewarded with amazingly successful careers in paths — paths we are helping to define and promote.

I can share some stories of industry leaders I’ve met in the past few months that really illustrate this. James Bermingham, executive vice president of operations at a luxury hotel chain, worked his way up in operations leadership. He emigrated from Ireland and started out as a dishwasher. Tom Nelson, vice president of operations at Albertsons Companies proudly states that he began his career as courtesy clerk, helping people take their groceries to their cars. Elaine Sandoval, corporate director of sales for another high-end hotel chain was headed towards medical school after completing her bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry. She realized that the hospitality jobs she had worked part-time while she was a college student brought her more joy than her planned path of going into medicine. Her career path helps her now see how to recruit new people into the industry.

The dynamism and excitement of helping people have an experience they’ll remember or buy something they really love or really need — these things keep the sector interesting and compelling.

Another interesting thing about this sector is that it’s the area where many young people get their first exposure to those all-important employability or soft skills known as “21st Century Skills” outlined in the New World of Work area of our division.

These skills include adaptability, collaboration, communication, social/diversity awareness, empathy, self-awareness, and resilience, to name a few. Skills I hear over and over that employers are seeking — in every sector.

For many of us, our first job as a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old was in this sector. Working directly with customers in retail, hospitality or tourism, you learn very quickly how to communicate, how to solve problems, and how to connect with people. These are exactly the kinds of skills we need in any career.

In this sector, we’re also keenly aware of how things are progressing with technology — but how at the heart of it is the skilled worker who cares about taking care of people. Technology is constantly moving the sector forward at lightning speed, but the quality of the people still matter. E-commerce is transforming the retail landscape, literally and figuratively. When we run into a problem shopping online, most of us seek a competent human being to help us get to a solution. Think of how you currently book all your travel — most of us do it online. No matter how quickly or efficiently you booked your last vacation, if the staff didn’t take care of you at your destination, you wouldn’t return.

Alternatively, when you have an amazing time at a California destination, it’s usually because a person helped make it so. And then we use technology to tell everyone about it. Even as technology changes the way work is done in this sector, these employability skills, also known as “soft skills” are what make employees in this sector particularly able to provide exceptional service and true customer connection points.

At the core of the retail/hospitality/tourism sector, we’re trying to take care of people in a meaningful way. We at the California Community Colleges can strive to provide relevant learning opportunities in the sector. I hope to help students discover how exciting the sector can be. Many successful leaders in the industry worked in RHT while getting their education, and they’ve built careers they’re proud of. Another encouraging part of that story is that many leaders support others to follow their educational dreams while working in the industry — they’ve seen how it has helped them, and they want to see that continue.

*source: The Economic Impact of the US Retail Industry, written by PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP,

For a list and contact information of all ten California Community Colleges sector navigators, click here.


Ed Coghlan

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