Funding a future: AHLEF awards scholarships to hospitality students

WASHINGTON—Hospitality workers—let alone passionate ones—are hard to come by. For hoteliers, the labor shortage and employee retention are challenges, but not ones impossible to tackle. One solution could be found not in the existing workforce, however, but in employees on the rise.

Passionate, but without adequate funding, many hospitality prospects can’t pursue the career path they would like, but the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Foundation (AHLEF) is looking to change that.

AHLEF administers nine scholarship programs that award scholarships to students—valued up to $7,500—enrolled in hospitality-related bachelor or graduate degree programs at colleges and universities across the U.S.

This year, the foundation is awarding $1.3 million in scholarships to 344 students, with more than 45% of the total recipients being minority students and nearly 75% of the total recipients being female. AHLEF has distributed more than $15 million in scholarship funds to hospitality management students in the U.S. since its founding, funded by individual donors and corporations.

“As an industry that is in the business of people, we are committed to offering tools, resources and educational opportunities to recruit and retain the eight million men and women who are the heart of hospitality—they are our industry’s greatest resource,” said Rosanna Maietta, president, AHLEF.

This year, AHLEF received and evaluated more than 1,200 applications, which are awarded based on academics, financial need, relevant work experience, extracurricular activities, personal attributes and a passion to pursue a career in the industry.

“The hotel and lodging industry exemplifies the American Dream, fostering personal growth, upward mobility and exciting lifelong careers,” Maietta said. “Nearly half of our industry’s GMs started their careers in entry-level positions, while so many global C-Suite executives began their professional journeys as dishwashers, bellmen or front desk agents. We believe that each of our scholarships are investing in the next generation of hotel leadership.”

In a recent study conducted with Hcareers, AHLEF found that Generation Z—America’s largest generation—was unaware of job opportunities in hospitality, but more than half wanted to pursue a career in the industry after they learned about these opportunities.

“We believe that by sharing the hotel industry’s story, we will be able to recruit more individuals to pursue hospitality education, whether that is at a traditional hospitality school or through more nontraditional paths like industry accreditation,” Maietta said.

Cameron Wuerfel is just one of this year’s recipients. He’s studying hospitality and tourism management at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI, and working at the JW Marriott Grand Rapids’ 616 restaurant close by.

For Wuerfel, hospitality is in his blood. With hotel owners for parents, he grew up experiencing the industry firsthand.

“I consider hospitality more of a movement than an industry,” he said. “It’s only [for] people with true dedication to expanding their ability to interact with people, as well as their ability to make wherever they are working a better place.”

Wuerfel was awarded a scholarship last year as well, and attributes his motivation to his father—an AHLA member—who encouraged him to apply. Both of his parents also instilled his sense of hard work. Wuerfel spent summers doing housekeeping work, laundry and mowing the lawn behind their hotel.

“Sometimes, when I was younger, it was a bummer to be working in the summer instead of playing outside, but it has prepared me to reach awesome heights,” he said.

And this is just the beginning for Wuerfel as he’s just starting out, already recognizing the importance of opportunities like the scholarships.

“Education reminds you of why you’re doing hospitality. When you complete a hospitality program, you have a sense of accomplishment that you worked hard to get where you’re at rather than just submitting an application and viewing it as just a job,” Wuerfel said.

In addition to the scholarships, AHLEF also offers a more immediate path to the hospitality industry with its apprenticeship program, Empowering Youth program and its Debt-Free College program.

“Since the hotel industry is extremely diverse, we believe that there are many successful paths to lifelong careers in the industry—for some, that means attending a traditional four-year university, while others may be successful enrolling in a certification program like our Empowering Youth project or apprenticeship program,” Maietta said. “Regardless of the path, our goal is to support individuals who want to learn more about our industry and develop the skill sets and knowledge necessary to move up in our industry. By expanding the nontraditional methods of learning, we believe that we will be better able to address the skills gap in the short term.”

Wuerfel recommends that the industry continues to enhance its outreach programs to make students feel like their stories and hard work matter.

“It’s not just about me but, in general, nothing can surpass hard work; even if you are at a low point in your life, you need to work hard and prove yourself—nothing defeats a good work ethic,” he said. “These scholarships have been a blessing. Scholarships make me not only proud of myself but proud of the industry I’m in. I am more than happy to encourage other students to apply for these scholarships. There is nothing to lose.” HB