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Owens: Local tourism education programs could keep talent here

The Tourism Leadership Council supports the pursuit of education with annual scholarships to those who are studying hospitality and tourism.

Last year, the TLC awarded a scholarship to Brandon Brooker,who was a senior at Groves High School. He had been working part-time at restaurants in town. He looked around and thought, this doesn’t have to be just a part-time job, and this can be a lucrative career.

He was accepted to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, to pursue a bachelor’s degree in hotel management. When he applied for the scholarship, his goal was to be a general manager of a prestigious hotel. He was smart, capable, hard-working, determined, and had the grades to match. But another city tried to lure him away.

So, what if we had a university in Savannah that could recruit, educate, and retain students like Brooker ? What if Georgia Southern brought its tourism program to the Armstrong campus?

GSU has a tourism program currently in Statesboro, housed under the School of Human Ecology. But what if that program were to be revamped and offered as a business degree at the Armstrong campus?

I spoke with Trip Addison, Georgia Southern University’s vice president of external relations, who brainstormed with me the possibility.

He spoke of a scenario where the tourism and hospitality students were educated like those in the education program to have practicum courses that would give students real-world experience. Those real-world experiences are in Savannah, not in Statesboro.

Addison added that 46 percent of Georgia Southern students are from metro Atlanta. Because the opportunities in Statesboro are limited, most of that educated talent goes back to Atlanta. But, imagine if we could recruit them to come find a career path in Savannah?

Within the last five years, tourism has become the largest employer in Savannah, employing 27,000 people in jobs that focus on accommodations, attractions, retail and restaurants.

As our industry thrives, we still find a struggle to fill job openings at every level. That’s why it’s critical for us to look at the pipeline that’s generating that workforce.

Currently, we have great programs in place, but they’re not enough to fill the need. We have Savannah Technical College and Ogeechee Technical College and; both have stellar hospitality programs. Virginia College has a hospitality program.

If Georgia Southern were to invest in a tourism program, maybe we could be on the map not only as Travel + Leisure’s Best Cities list, but we could be known as the place that educates those in hospitality.

In the case of Brandon Brooker, I think we will see him in the Savannah tourism community again. He hinted at it in his scholarship application.

“I passionately hope that my endeavors lead me back to my hometown of Savannah. I have always been told that, all things considered, that statistics do not predict a bright future for black males my age. I want to return a polished gentleman and role model inclined to improve his hometown.”

Brandon, I hope you do stay in Savannah. We need you.

Michael Owens is president/CEO of the Tourism Leadership Council, the largest nonprofit trade organization that supports and represents the tourism community. Contact Owens at michael@tourismleadershipcouncil.com or 912-232-1223.

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