By Joe Baker, Tourism HR Canada Board of Directors
I’ve spent enough time working in the higher education world and around labour market information to understand that a sample size of sixty-five isn’t exactly statistically significant when evaluating the experience of Canada’s entire high school population. But I have also come to appreciate that lived experience can add powerful perspective and offer intuitive insight.
I was recently invited to participate in a problems-based learning experience, designed by Y2 Entrepreneurship Labs, for a group of sixty-five high school students in Oshawa, Ontario. Oshawa is a “big city” within the province’s Durham Region, which lies nestled between lakes Ontario, Simcoe, and Scugog. It’s a landscape made up of urban, rural, and commercial zones—from rolling hills and farmland to bustling downtowns and industrial lands. The region has become one of the fastest-growing areas in Canada, with a population expected to almost double to 1.2 million by 2041.
The students I met with were part of the Province of Ontario’s Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) program—a specialized program that allows students to gain credits toward their Ontario Secondary School Diploma and focus their learning on a specific economic sector. There is a specific stream for those students interested in pursuing a career in hospitality and tourism.
The SHSM–Hospitality and Tourism stream enables students to build a foundation of sector-focused knowledge and skills before graduating and entering apprenticeship training, college, university, or an entry-level position in the workplace. Where local circumstances allow, school boards may offer one or more variants of the SHSM in a given sector, each with a particular area of focus. This focus is achieved through the selection of the four major credits in the bundle.
I was asked to prepare a real-world problem scenario that would allow these students to engage in a design thinking exercise similar to modern user-experience design approaches. This was not meant to be a simulation. This was meant to be preparation for the real-world skills these future hoteliers, restaurateurs, and chefs would need as they chose their next steps.
Here is the exact context and problem I asked them to work on:
As of June 2023, Canada will ban the manufacture and import for sale of single-use plastics to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030. The hospitality industry will be one of the sectors most affected by this change and needs help transitioning to this new environmentally friendly reality. On top of this change, labour shortages and supply chain challenges have put increased financial pressure on an already razor-thin profitability model.
What product or process innovations might restaurant and foodservice operators consider that can help them support Canada’s ban on single-use plastics without affecting their value proposition to customers while maintaining or increasing profitability? Keep in mind these legislation changes come in to place as of June 2023, so time is of the essence.
Learning About Them
This group of students were highly engaged. They listened intently, asked brilliant questions, and cared deeply about the challenge of sustainability. They knew more about carbon footprint than I did. They understood they had a role to play. They got the concept of profitability but didn’t seem to care nearly as much about it as they did about environmental consciousness.
What struck me most was how much they enjoyed problem-based learning. I asked every one of them how they liked the actual experience of learning this way and they unanimously said this way of learning was unlike anything they had previously experienced.
One line in particular struck me—to paraphrase one of the students: “It’s nice to feel like someone actually cares about our ideas.” I will leave that to simmer with you.
Learning From Them
Their ideas fell into three distinct categories. Call these thematic glimpses into what these students see as the solution to reduce single-use plastics in the hospitality industry.
- Source more environmentally conscious packaging products. While this in and of itself may not seem particularly novel, it was the pairing they made. They wanted to see the government find a way to financially support manufacturers, so the costs do not need to be absorbed by the businesses or consumers. Savvy concept.
- Place the onus on the consumer. They were very aware that the consumer needed to become informed of the pending ban and had a role to play in the solution. This one also stuck with me. To think that they hold consumers accountable is remarkably insightful. And lofty.
- Involve everybody. Perhaps the most insightful idea of all. The students suggested virtual town halls, social media campaigns, and in-person gatherings to help the businesses source active solutions from their local communities and from around the world. This, to me, is inclusion at its finest.
To paraphrase another gem of a student: “I don’t understand why leaders of businesses always think they are the only people facing a problem. Someone from around the world must have figured this out before. And they’re easy to access because of social media. You just need to seek out ideas from others.”
Learning With Them
A lot has been said about the younger generations. Much fear has been stoked that those now working their way through our education system don’t have the wherewithal to become future hospitality and tourism leaders. I don’t buy it. And I am grateful I was able to learn with these brilliant students. I believe we actually have a lot of hope ahead of us. As long as we commit to doing one thing consistently…
Joe Baker is a passionate leader within Canada’s tourism, hospitality and education sectors and a vocal advocate for a resilient, inclusive, future-forward industry. He is CEO of Joe Baker & Co., a human capital consultancy focused on strengthening hospitality and tourism organizations and people. Baker was dean at Centennial College’s School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts where he led the most significant transformation in the school’s over 50-year history. He serves on the boards of directors at Tourism HR Canada and the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario.
Joe can be found everywhere @thejoebaker.