ProStart cultivates top-notch restaurant talent for Washington state

ProStart cultivates top-notch restaurant talent for Washington state

As customers file into their favorite local restaurants and enjoy their favorite dishes, they don’t notice the absence of an iconic part of American culture. An experience often shared around the country is no longer readily available, mostly due to the added expense, new regulations and training time. This loss is seldom discussed by consumers, unless, of course the patrons are parents of a teenage son or daughter.

Many baby boomers started their careers at local restaurants, but their children may not have the same opportunities. They worked as bussers, servers and cooks and developed strong work ethics and a sense of pride when customers left satisfied.

Teen employment is down almost 50 percent, and with the new Washington minimum wage rate set at $9.04 an hour, studies show the number of unemployed teenagers will increase. Today, it is not as easy for teenagers to find jobs. However, one unique program is helping teenagers and restaurants solve this challenging problem.

The WRA Education Foundation’s ProStart program trains high school students for careers in the restaurant industry. The ProStart curriculum is taught in high schools throughout the country—including 33 schools right here in Washington. Each student must also complete the internship requirement prior to graduation, which requires a minimum of 400 hours of work at a local restaurant. Students and restaurants benefit from ProStart, because students receive necessary training and restaurateurs do not need to invest extra time teaching graduates basic food service skills.

ProStart in action
Elijah Dalager, currently the executive sous chef at the Red Lion Templin’s Hotel on the River in Post Falls Idaho, graduated from the program at Ferris High School in 2005. “Near the end of my sophomore year I was not sure if I was going to graduate,” Elijah said. “But then I met Bill Allen, and he pushed me under his wing and really got me involved with ProStart.”

Shortly after joining the program, Elijah discovered his career path. “With my formal education, I was never motivated to sit down and learn,” Elijah said. “I could not sit down in a chair for the life of me, so when I was given the opportunity to use my hands and create, it opened a new world to me.”

Elijah competed victoriously in several Boyd Coffee ProStart Invitationals, and most recently won the Washington State 2011 Chef of the Year award. “I ended up getting up my Associate degree in culinary arts, and am currently getting my bachelor’s degree,” Elijah said. “I never have a hard time finding a job anymore.”

Chance decision leads to career
Jerry Weathers, another ProStart graduate currently works as a sous chef for the Snoqualmie Ridge Golf Course and owns a catering business that services the wine industry. Jerry enrolled in the program at Mt. Si High School because he needed an extra elective, but quickly discovered he enjoyed the course work.

“I had a choice between a couple of classes, but I chose ProStart because it sounded more fun,” Jerry said. “I took it, then I just kept taking it. I liked the opportunity to go to the competitions, and it was good to work with hands on stuff and not just sitting in class. I don’t learn well just sitting there getting lectured.”

Jerry now mentors students from ProStart, and often hires graduates as interns and employees. “I still work with the high school programs and go to all the competitions to help current students,” Jerry said. “We hire out of the local schools and give them a hands-on experience.”

Minimum wage may continue to increase in Washington state, leading to an escalation of teen unemployment. However, programs such as ProStart are turning out class after class of trained and highly qualified workers, fully prepared to join the restaurant industry workforce. While Washington teens may not always be able to acquire valuable work experience, ProStart is giving those students a leg up on future careers and improving their chances of finding restaurant industry jobs after high school and beyond.

In a time when our economy is in a state of uncertainty, the ProStart program offers a win-win opportunity for restaurants and teens alike.

(Written by Shawn Sullivan for Washington Restaurant Magazine)