COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH)–The tourism industry has a diversity problem, but Experience Columbus is hoping that a new apprenticeship program focusing on training racially diverse candidates will help move the needle.

Experience Columbus this week launched a new apprenticeship program that aims to “help close the significant racial equity gap in the Central Ohio hospitality community,” according to the destination marketing organization.

The program will provide job opportunities and mentorship to people who identify as Black, indigenous or people of color, with the hope of eventually hiring them into leadership jobs in the local sector.

“I believe that organizations cannot be effective in our society in this day and age without having diverse voices at the table making decisions,” said Shannon Jones, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Experience Columbus.

Columbus hospitality employees are 73% white, according to a study by research and data firm Tourism Economics.

That’s significantly less diverse than the city as a whole. Columbus is 58% white, 29% Black, 6% Hispanic or Latino and nearly 6% Asian, according to the U.S. Census.

Jones said there is even more disparity when it comes to leadership positions.

“In the tourism industry, there is diversity, but a lot of that is happening (with) the entry level, frontline work,” Jones said. “In order to change the culture in these organizations and reach all people, people of color have to be at the table making those decisions.”

The apprenticeship program is being funded by an initial $775,000 commitment over two years, money that’s coming from the city of Columbus, the Columbus Foundation and Franklin County.

The program will pay apprentices $17 per hour for a six-month period. They’ll be able to get hands-on experience in guest services, event planning, administration, marketing, sales and financing.

Upon completing the apprenticeship, participants will be offered a full-time position at one of the program’s host locations, a list that includes Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, COSI, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, Concord Hospitality Enterprises, Experience Columbus, Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, the Greater Columbus Convention Center, the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, the Hilton Columbus Downtown, the Hyatt Regency and Jordan Hospitality Group.

Those organizations “were more than willing to get involved,” Jones said.

Beyond diversity, she said, “it is no secret that the hospitality industry took a hit because of Covid-19. A lot of these organizations are looking to rebuild because of job loss and they want to be really intentional about who they’re hiring.”

Jones said while the program initially is for two years, Experience Columbus hopes to extend it. It’s being launched in partnership with Tourism Diversity Matters, which has launched similar programs in Baltimore, Nashville and other cities.

“Two years is not enough time to be a transformational program for the community,” she said. “We’re not trying to end this in two years. It needs to be around for quite some time to make an impact.”

Jones said she hopes people realize that there are a lot of interesting career opportunities in the industry.

“I think people have a misconception about the hospitality industry,” Jones said. “They don’t realize it can be a career and you can make good money in this industry. We want to get BIPOC people in the door for them to see all of the opportunities that the travel industry has to offer.”

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