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Fast Food Chain Dishes Up Employment
 

By David Tobenkin  5/20/2011
 

Officials at multinational companies in the Middle East often say they cannot find talented employees and junior managers among college and high school graduate applicants.

Many students there study full time and graduate from universities without marketable skills or work experience. Experts say many lack standard skills such as cost accounting, communications skills, customer relations skills and business operation skills that are valued by multinational businesses. Yet they view the jobs that are available—particularly service industry jobs—as being beneath them.

For successful and rapidly expanding multinationals in Cairo and Egypt, and in Kuwait, where food services company Americana Group is based, those realities add up to a monumental HR challenge.

“We have 1,200 restaurants with 45,000 employees, and our annual growth rate for the past three years was around 18 percent per year. The nightmare is that there is a mismatch between the needs of employers and the skills of unemployed graduates,” said Abdel Hakim Hussein, Americana’s human resource director for planning and systems development.

“What we look for in hospitality employees is not only technical skills but also the right attitudes, positive behavioral skills and personality traits. The school syllabuses do not match the requirements of the industry. There is a lack of practical training and skills and knowledge, the ratio of students to teachers is too high, classes lack discipline, hygiene is below acceptable levels, and there is nationally no effective vocational training system.”

In 2007, Americana, which runs outlets of restaurant brands Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), TGI Fridays, Baskin Robbins and Pizza Hut, as well as Middle Eastern-themed brands, decided to act on its labor source challenges by launching a large program aimed at bridging the employer-student divide. The effort, called Reciprocate Education, is a vocational-educational program of Americana, Egyptian universities and the Egyptian Ministry of Education.

Participating students can earn bachelor’s or associate degrees in food service and hospitality-related fields from one of several Egyptian public universities and trade schools while employed by Americana. The company pays not only the students’ salaries but also their tuition and other educational costs.

Participants combine, or alternate, their educational instruction with work experience at Americana, resulting in improved vocational prospects at Americana and elsewhere for graduates of the program.

Education and Standards

“The program combines education in skills and standards required by the industry and practical training in restaurants and incorporates the two into a curriculum and experience that is linked to a career path, including entry-level, supervisory and manager positions,” Hussein said.

Students in the advanced programs offered by Americana study a wide array of subjects, including information technology, principles of the hospitality industry, restaurant service, management and leadership, food production and other courses, including English.

Americana has graduated 1,050 employee-students with associate degrees in hospitality services from a two-year technical institute program based at a school called the Technical Institute of Tourism and Hotels.

Participants in this program, including low-income youths, spend eight months in restaurants during the two years and study at technical institutes in Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt. Roughly one-third of those students have done sufficiently well to enroll in university programs after graduation, and even those that do not graduate demonstrate improved general skills, Hussein said. The company hopes to enroll 2,000 students per year in that program eventually.

The company would not divulge the size of its investment or the return on investment.

Americana is targeting a smaller number of employees for more demanding four-year programs. In 2008, Americana partnered with Cairo-based Helwan University to begin offering a program aimed at creating managers. The four-year undergraduate program includes 18 months of training to prepare students for the job of assistant restaurant manager. Americana pledges to employ all graduates who receive bachelor’s degrees in hospitality and restaurant management from Helwan’s Faculty of Tourism and Hotel Management program. Americana has employed 90 percent of the 36 program graduates to date, Hussein said, and it plans to enroll 100 students per year when the program is at full speed.

Americana pays most of the costs for the programs, including tuition and training materials, the students’ salaries while they are employed and taking classes, salaries for instructors, and even student meals and uniforms.

What Americana gets for its investment is a trained, experienced workforce that it can deploy at Americana locations throughout Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. Hussein said the Egyptian training program is only a first step for the company, which plans to replicate the model in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of the Persian Gulf, which include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“I believe the program is producing good employees because they knew our needs, they have the knowledge, skills and attitudes that make them ready for good work, and they have the brand loyalty that makes the company and the job fit,” said Howida Shehata Riad, an Americana KFC operations manager in Cairo who manages 570 employees, including 47 program participants and graduates.

Supporting the program is a dedicated team of Americana HR personnel, Hussein said. He said there is one Americana skills trainer for every five to 10 students, one training specialist and restaurant training manager for every 20 to 30 students, one HR coordinator for every 240 students, and one program leader for each program.

Competitors Take Note

Hussein said that while the project is still at an early stage, initial indicators are positive, prompting competitors to set up similar programs.

“I am very pleased with the results achieved so far concerning the Helwan-Americana educational and vocational programs. And Helwan now is establishing similar programs with the McDonald’s company and an Egyptian company called Amer Group,” said Aly Omar Abdalla, a vice president of Helwan University who helped set up the Reciprocate Education program with Americana and who believes the Helwan-Americana program is the first of its type in Egypt.

In setting up such programs, businesses and educational institutions are following a global trend.

“The problem of a disparity between what colleges teach and what companies want is an enormous issue in a number of countries and companies are having to go to extraordinary lengths to overcome this,” said Society for Human Resource Management member Lance J. Richards, GPHR, SPHR, global senior director of workforce strategy and evolution for Kelly Services, Inc.’s Outsourcing and Consulting Group.

“IBM in China, for example, runs an in-house ‘university’ for graduate hires in which they spend six to nine months teaching recent graduates how to think and how to work,” Richards said. “With this program, Americana is taking the same road as a lot of companies in the world.”

The Reciprocate Education program has an added benefit. It’s opening up employment and educational opportunities to women—a group that traditionally has been left behind in Egyptian society.

“This program was valuable to me because it provided me with confidence and a job in hospitality—even though I am a girl and it is difficult to work in restaurants for girls in an Eastern society,” said Rania Lozy Atta Allah.

In May 2011, she will finish a training-education program with a two-year advanced technical degree from the Al Mataria Institutes for Tourism and Hotels. She’ll have experience from related work at an Americana KFC restaurant.

“My family and friends had fears for my safety working in a restaurant, but when I did the job, none of the fears were realized,” she said.

David Tobenkin is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.

 

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