West Michigan is home to high-caliber chefs, bakers and other culinary experts and the level of skill is evident in the cuisine and flavors served at ethnic restaurants, fine dining establishments, casual diners, pastry shops and bistros.
Kent Career Tech Center senior Joslynn Skutt, who wants to operate her own bakery someday, described the area as a place for many palates. “It’s very diverse and you can get so much culture from every bakery you go to.”
Now there’s an easy way for Joslynn to transition smoothly from high school student to pastry aficionado with the goal of adding her own style and flavor to the scene. Thanks to a new partnership between the Tech Center and Grand Rapids Community College’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Education, she is among 40 students earning 20-25 free GRCC credits, about a third of the 67-credit associates degree.
Culinary students attend GRCC classes taught at the Tech Center their junior and senior years and during a fifth high school year. They then graduate with a high school diploma, industry certifications and earn their certified fundamental cook designation from the American Culinary Federation.
Werner Absenger, Secchia Institute for Culinary Education program director, said the partnership is a way to fast-track students through school and save them a third of the cost.
“We are shortening the period of time to start the program and finish it,” he said. When students finish KCTC, they will usually only have a year left full time at GRCC. “We are able to take a two-and-a-half year program and compress into one year.”
Connecting the Dots
“It’s such a clear pathway,” said Sara Waller, Tech Center culinary instructor. “Students are going into college a step ahead of the other kids because they see so much here…We are sending so many students to GRCC already, a partnership was a no-brainer. It’s what the kids were asking for.”
The Tech Center often gives culinary students another boost as well, Waller said. “If they do three years with us and they do a good job, we also like to send them out the door with a nice scholarship to get them going.”
Senior Anthony Hall plans to become a baker, making all sorts of pastries in the Grand Rapids area. He said he likes the idea of earning his culinary degree and working in the area. He nibbled on a cookie during the GRCC “Principles of Food Science” class with Adjunct Professor Bill Gayle, held at the Tech Center.
“I think it’s an amazing opportunity because it can really help us in the future,” said Hall about the GRCC program.
Senior Arianna Kruizenga said the partnership supports her goal to become a dietitian and nutritionist, or owner of a catering company. “I can spring right into it with a head start.”
Jobs are in Demand
Jobs are waiting and demand for workers in the industry is expected to continue.
“Everyone is hurting for manpower, employees and talent. A year quicker (to their degree) puts them in the workforce a year sooner,” Absenger said.
In the U.S., based on 2018 data U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics demand for cooks in schools, hospitals and cafeterias, will grow by 6 percent from 2016 to 2026. The restaurant industry will need to employ 1.377 million cooks in 2026 compared to 1.22 million in 2016.
Because of the need for workers, Absenger said young people often get jobs instead of pursuing a degree. However, a culinary degree can help in the long run.
“What we see happening is students not in program or never enrolled, will come to us and say, ‘How long does it take to finish an associates?’ because they have been passed over for promotions,” he said.
Total savings for someone who would otherwise attend GRCC as a full-tuition college student is about $5,500, bringing the cost of a culinary arts degree for a resident student from about $16,500 to about $11,000. Staying in Grand Rapids also eliminates the room and board costs of attending a four-year university.
It’s also a great industry to work in, said Absenger, a chef from Austria. “I was literally able to get a job anywhere on the planet and I think that’s the coolest part of the industry. You can make money everywhere you go.”