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Academy with millions of dollars in government funding helps hospitality workers get better jobs

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Academy with millions of dollars in government funding helps hospitality workers get better jobs

Feb 27, 2024 | 9:29 am ET
By Levi Sumagaysay
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Students prepare potatoes to make Potato Chateau in the Hospitality Training Academy class on Feb. 13, 2024. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for CalMatters.
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Students prepare potatoes to make Potato Chateau in the Hospitality Training Academy class on Feb. 13, 2024. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for CalMatters.

Dulce Solano, a 49-year-old immigrant from Mexico, has worked in this country for two decades, juggling multiple jobs, day and night. Until a little over a year ago, she had never had a weekend off.

In late 2022, she completed a free, nearly three-month line-cook program from the Los Angeles-based Hospitality Training Academy and got a union job at University of Southern California, where she is now the head of the deli at Little Galen, a campus cafe.

Now, she is able to save a little money for the first time, Solano said. She used to have to work on holidays. Now she is eligible for overtime when she works holidays, plus she has one week of vacation — also a first for her. 

Solano got teary-eyed as she described how she felt about being accepted into the training — which is selective — then securing a job afterward that she said allows her to better help her three adult children, two of whom are in Mexico.

“They saw something in me that made me feel confident in myself,” she said. 

The training academy is a partnership between Unite Here Local 11, a union representing the area’s hospitality workers, and employers. Its programs include training for line cooks, prep cooks and others, help with English skills and more. It’s also working on training for baristas and bartenders, said Adine Forman, the academy’s executive director. 

The academy relies on local, state and federal grants for most of its funding — including money from California’s High Road Training Partnership, a program that aims to train workers for jobs that pay a living wage, offer benefits, provide safe working conditions and opportunities for moving up while providing a pipeline of qualified workers for different industries. 

The state has spent $370 million on the High Road program since 2014, CalMatters reported recently. In 2023, the Hospitality Training Academy used $978,735 from High Road funds and in-kind contributions on training, stipends and other support for the participants — Solano got a $200 stipend for gas when she went through the program, and a knife set when she graduated. 

The academy last year received $4.1 million from government grants and $900,000 from a training fund that was established as part of the labor-industry partnership, in which employers pay into the fund based on the number of hours their employees work. Those funds also went toward rent for the training site in Los Angeles, staff salaries and more, academy spokesperson Naomi Goldman said. 

Last year, 163 people graduated from the academy’s apprenticeship line-cook program, all of whom were placed into union jobs at hotels, stadiums, Disneyland and USC. Of that number, 94% were people of color, Goldman said. The graduates’ starting wages ranged from $19.92 an hour to $27.89 an hour, she said.

Solano, who is also taking classes to get her GED diploma, makes just under $20 an hour working 40 hours or more a week at her job at USC. While she gets weekends off from that job, she still works at a restaurant on Fridays and also has a housekeeping and caretaking job. 

Other graduates from the academy go on to get jobs at hotels in the area — though some of those employees have been striking as they try to secure new union contracts, saying their wages are too low to afford to live in Los Angeles near where they work. 

Susan Minato is co-president of Unite Here Local 11 and the chair of the training academy. “On the union side, we’re fighting for better standards,” she said. “On the (academy) side, (workers) will benefit from that because the job that they go into will be a job that has a higher standard.”

Minato added that “some people in our classes have lived in their cars or vans, and some people are coming directly from a (homeless) shelter” — and when they graduate, they secure union jobs with benefits, labor protections and more.

Latina women, like Solano, have the second-lowest labor-participation rate in the state, at 74%, according to a Public Policy Institute of California report published this month. That report also said that for groups with low labor-participation rates, “retraining programs, improving prospects for skilled workers with less formal education, and easing pathways to entrepreneurship could all have sizable impacts.” 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 — when many hospitality workers were laid off — was a tough time for the academy, according to executive director Forman’s written report to the California Workforce Development Board. The academy’s leadership adjusted by developing online courses to help workers with English-language skills, and developing other courses for future use.

The academy has seen enough success that in September, it received almost $3 million from the U.S. Labor Department to help scale its registered apprenticeship program in Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Boston, Forman told CalMatters.

Another training academy graduate, 22-year-old Donathan Duong, has been a banquet cook at the Biltmore Los Angeles hotel, a luxury hotel, for more than a year. This is his first “real job,” where he makes $27.45 an hour, which he said is one of the highest-paying cooking jobs in downtown L.A. Duong, who said he never liked school and didn’t want to go to college, is also in the Marine Corps Reserves and is enthusiastic about what he’s doing.

“It’s really fun working at banquets because of how different it is,” he said, adding that he and his colleagues cook for parties as small as 25 people or as large as 600 people. Now, Duong says he aspires to go into fine dining, or perhaps to become a private chef.

“I think Donathan has potential to be an executive chef,” said Alex DeCarvalho, vice president of sales and marketing for Millennium Hotels and Resorts, whose brands include the Biltmore. DeCarvalho said since last year when the hotel was introduced to the academy, the hotel has extended job offers to a few of its graduates. 

“The caliber of candidates we interviewed from the (academy) was head and shoulders above candidates we were getting from our job listings,” he said.

Albert Sanchez, 48, graduated from the academy in 2021 and now works as a line and banquet cook at the Moxy Downtown Los Angeles hotel. Before that, he spent eight years in prison and got out in 2020. 

Sanchez called the academy “a godsend,” saying he feels at home working in a kitchen and it’s not “hard, dirty work” like his previous jobs as a construction worker and a mechanic. Where he once worked with auto grease, he now gets a kick out of using techniques he learned in the academy, like emulsification to make hollandaise sauce and other fancy stocks and sauces. 

“I enjoy telling people we were classically trained,” he said.

Solano, too, said she had previous restaurant experience but that the academy — though strict and “teaching like the military” — helped her learn new skills and add words to her culinary vocabulary. She has recommended at least one person to the academy.

“If I had the chance to bring more people to (the academy), of course I would do it,” she said.

Financial support for this story was provided by the Smidt Foundation.