ProStart program highlights hospitality labor shortage, high school opportunities

Students are given the opportunity to enjoy personal and hands-on mentorship with industry professionals, while local businesses look to potentially address long-standing shortages in the labor force.

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Students take part in a culinary course at Brainerd High School Thursday, Nov. 7. Utilizing collaborations between educators, industry heads and professionals in the field, the Brainerd School District has partnered with a number of local hospitality businesses to incorporate a program to train and certify students for the hospitality industry while still in high school. The aim is to provide students a potential career path, while also addressing a shortage of workers. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

Tourism is one of the driving economic pillars for the Brainerd lakes area, so when there’s a shortage of hospitality workers to work the area’s hotels, resorts, recreational offerings, and restaurants, the answers are often communal in nature.

That’s the lowdown given to state Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, when he stopped by Brainerd High School Thursday, Nov. 7, in a stop on his statewide development tour. The ProStart culinary program took center stage in a larger discussion on how community partnerships can address problems for local industries.

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State Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, speaks at a round table meeting of community heads, industry leaders, students and educators on Thursday, Nov. 7. Describing private-public sector partnerships as a key building block to future economic success, Anderson stopped by Brainerd in a tour for workforce development across the state of Minnesota. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

“There has to be champions in this community. One organization can try to lead the way, but if you don’t have that collaboration that hangs ego at the door, it’s just not going to work,” Anderson told a round table of industry heads, educators and students. “I think the difference between industries that are surviving, if not thriving, is an impressive collaboration between private and public; chambers, education and industry.”


The roundtable also pointed to central Minnesota organizations that factor into the equation such as Central Lakes College and Sourcewell, which also work to integrate private-sector collaboration into the curriculum so that the region attracts, hires and retains workers in key industries.

“It’s kind of a chicken-egg thing, but I think we’re realizing in Minnesota that if we don’t have that education pipeline, the talent is going to go elsewhere,” Anderson said. “These partnerships are just huge.”

ProStart, working in conjunction with Bridges Career Academies, seeks to implement culinary training and certification for high school students through an offering of specialized courses, industry professional mentorships and educational tours. In particular, the program utilizes resources and professionals from local hospitality businesses such as Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake, Grand View Lodge, Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge and others.

Frank Soukup (center), a chef at Grand View Lodge, serves as the professional liaison with the students and helps to bolster the curriculum his expertise and real world experience. "Whether I'm paid or not, I'm going to be here anyway," said the veteran chef, who described his participation in the ProStart program as giving back to the next generation. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

While a fledgling program -- rough-edges and all -- educators noted the program has grown over three years to a current roster of 31 students, while the program would max out at 32 slots based on limited safe and available work spaces.

In turn, Matt Kilian, president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, challenged Anderson to facilitate a framework in St. Paul that promotes these partnerships and to do so quickly.

“When you can remove a lot of bureaucratic barriers, things happen quickly,” Kilian said. “So, my advice is whatever you can do at the state level, make it simple as possible and get rid of as many hoops as possible, so we can incentivize some of these partners.”


In an era of quickly evolving technology and seismic social forces, Kilian said it’s going to be a crucial sink-or-swim moment for many businesses, communities and states.

“We need to,” Kilian added. “This is not a question of this is a luxury. We need to do this. There’s going to be winners and losers across the state.”

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