As a desk clerk at a busy Seven Mile Beach Hotel, Matthew Bodden spends his days, and some of his nights, checking in guests, helping them with luggage and talking up Cayman to tourists.
The 19-year-old, one of eight trainees taken on at the Comfort Suites last year, has big ambitions.
“I’m definitely trying to work my way up the ladder and hopefully be manager of the hotel one day,” he says.
It’s an ambition that Thomas Mason, the manager of the hotel, shares. Mason, originally from Scotland, says he is proud of the fact that 90 percent of his staff are Caymanian.
He believes the hotel is leading the charge in a growing national movement toward getting more young Caymanians involved in the tourism trade.
“The Department of Tourism has highlighted Cayman Kind as being so important to the visitor experience. People who come here are looking for a Caymanian experience, and that comes from meeting and interacting with Cayman people.
“I think it’s great to see more being done now to encourage young Caymanian people to come into the industry.”
A new hospitality school, based at the University College of the Cayman Islands and featuring extensive work placements in hotels and restaurants around the island, opens this month.
The year-long course aims to equip school leavers with the attributes required for entry-level jobs in the tourism trade.
For Markus Mueri, who runs three restaurants in Grand Cayman and has been involved in creating the school, it is an exciting first step.
He acknowledges there has been, in the past, a disconnect between the desire to have Caymanians work in the tourism trade and the training on offer to polish candidates for jobs that require constant interaction with tourists.
“You can’t just take an unemployed person and send them to us and the next day they are a server. You have to have the right attitude, the willingness to do that type of job.”
He hopes the course will teach young people some of the basics that will set them on the path to bigger and better opportunities.
“The school will help students find their passion in the hospitality industry. We want to teach them to shake hands, to look someone in the eye, how to interact with customers as well.”
The graduates of the school will be eligible for entry-level jobs. But Mueri says there is no limit to how far they can go. Many hotel managers, he said, start in low-paying jobs and work their way up.
“Government is keen to have Caymanians in the front of house interacting with customers and that is good. But for me a server or a bus boy, even a concierge job, they are not jobs for life. You do it for a few years, you get more experience and you move up.
“If we get this right in five to 10 years they should be moving up to become the next restaurant managers.”
Former Premier McKeeva Bush, who is credited by those involved with the tourism school as the man who put the plan into motion, said his initial hope was to have a training hotel – similar to Barbados, where students work in a fully functioning hotel.
He said he had pushed various tourism training projects over the years because he recognized the value of the industry in creating jobs.
“I am satisfied that things are moving in the right direction. Tourism is something that young people can gravitate towards. I gravitated towards it because I didn’t want to sit behind a desk all day, I wanted to be out and about meeting people,” says Bush, who worked at the old La Fontaine restaurant as a young man.
He said ensuring Caymanians are prepared for tourism jobs and diversifying the economy to create more opportunities in other areas, like shipping and the oil industry, would help preserve blue-collar jobs and create options beyond the financial industry.
For Pilar Bush, a former director of Tourism in the Cayman Islands, putting Caymanians front and center in the industry is not just an employment issue – it’s a big part of making the tourism product stand out.
Cayman has plenty of rivals in the sun, sea and sand vacation category.
“Visitors want an authentic experience, whether here on business or pleasure. Where does authenticity come from? It comes from people.
“To ensure we deliver an authentic Cayman experience, we need to have an adequate representation of Caymanians in the hospitality industry. We also need to make sure teach and train guest workers on authentic Cayman experiences to be able share with visitors.”
Past efforts to encourage more Caymanians involvement in the industry have had mixed results.
Whether it’s perception or reality, the feeling exists that many Caymanians don’t want to work in tourism or don’t see it as a viable long-term career path.
A jobs roadshow organized by the Cayman Islands Tourism Association in conjunction with the National Workforce Development Agency late last year, sought to match unemployed Caymanians with up to 150 open positions in the industry.
But only 12 ultimately found jobs. For some types of jobs – such as front desk positions – there was plenty of interest.
But CITA president Ken Hydes, presenting a statistical analysis of the jobs drive earlier this year, acknowledged there had been “challenges,” with a lack of interest or relevant qualifications a barrier to some opportunities, particularly kitchen work and water-sports jobs. Some of the figures suggested a lack of interest in the industry.
With reportedly 2,000 Caymanians out of work, only 183 on the NWDA database said they were interested in jobs in hospitality or tourism. Around 60 of those failed to turn up to district road shows with employers after being contacted by CITA and indicating they would attend.
Of the 120 who did show up, 47 were registered for programs to improve their “soft skills”. Just under half of those did not attend.
Despite those figures, Mr. Hydes said at the time that CITA is dedicated to improving the employment of Caymanians in the industry and he has highlighted the hospitality school as another step towards achieving that aim.
For Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell it is essential that Caymanians share in the wealth the booming industry is bringing to the island. With record arrival figures and new hotel projects in the works there is no shortage of jobs.
He believes that once the hospitality school gathers momentum and young people begin to see the possibilities in the industry the old cliché that Caymanians don’t want to work in tourism will disappear. Speaking at the launch of the tourism school at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman last month he said officials and industry leaders needs to try to sell the industry to young people and show them that it can be a great career.