RDs have the nutrition know-how onsite needs, but selling them on foodservice management careers remains a challenge.
Who will be onsite foodservice's future directors and managers, and where will they come from? Given the increased attention issues like nutrition, obesity and wellness have commanded recently, it's a fair bet that expertise in dietetics and nutrition will be a hot skill set for future managers and administrators.
That likely means a much greater role for RDs in onsite foodservice management, not just in the traditional institutional segments like healthcare, corrections and K-12, but also in colleges and even B&I.
In addition to their nutrition know-how, graduates of dietetic programs also have another highly desirable qualification: more training and exposure to quantity food production as part of their certification protocol. That's a significant factor when it comes to managing in many onsite environments, says Linda Lafferty, PhD, RD, FADA, dietetic internship director for the Food and Nutrition Services Dept. at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
“Quantity food production is not a big part of the hospitality management curriculum,” she says. “Dietitians are much better positioned to step into leadership roles in institutions, child nutrition programs, schools, hospitals, and any other place where you feed large groups of people.”
But is the supply channel up to the challenge?
“We need to help dietitians as they progress in their careers and are interested in stepping into management positions,” says Lafferty. “They typically need some more training, through fairly modest means like internships, symposiums, seminars and fellowships, to give them the experience and knowledge to be effective in management of food and nutrition services.”
The industry also has to take it upon itself to make sure that the management career option is given a fair hearing before dietetic program students and interns, Lafferty adds. That's because, all too often, academic programs underemphasize management careers even though foodservice management is part of the dietetic curriculum.
That situation is aggravated by a reduction in the number of programs with strong foodservice management components in the face of the profession's emphasis on clinical. As a result, most young RDs coming out of school are only vaguely aware of career opportunities in foodservice management.
So what is to be done?
There are several things, say prominent industry figures contacted by FM. Most generally, dietetic internship programs in onsite foodservice departments must do a better job of highlighting management career paths for interns who come through on their rotations. While foodservice management is a required component of dietetic internships, it is too often overshadowed by the many clinical requirements, many say.
“Students often come in with their only management experience coming from having worked in a restaurant,” says Mary Molt, PhD, RD/LD, assistant director of Kansas State University's housing & dining services who is also an assistant professor in KSU's dietetic program. “But after they work with us and we have them in class for a semester, many develop a more profound appreciation for management, and begin to think of it as something they may want to get into.”
“In our program, it's hard to pack a lot into the foodservice rotation because they are only here for a short time with a lot to go through,” adds Lynne Ometer, MS, MHA, RD, director of food and nutrition services at Emory Hospitals in Atlanta. “Still, we try to make certain that we give them a really upbeat kind of experience in the hope that, later in their careers, some may remember their foodservice management experience as being exciting, instead of just going to the kitchen to cook.”
It's not just a healthcare issue. All segments are beginning to realize that nurturing the next generation of managers and directors is a challenge that has not been sufficiently addressed.
“I think child nutrition programs in the last five years have become exponentially harder to manage from a business standpoint,” says Kathleen Glindmeier, director of nutrition and wellness for Paradise Valley (AZ) Schools. “If ever there was the need for people who have the specific skill set, it's now. But if we don't start training them when they're young, it's much harder to come into this when you're mid-career. So it's really important that we get them right out of college and help them get that strong foundation.”
“It's unusual to find a dietitian who starts his or her career in management and stays there,” Lafferty concedes. “Students tend to go into food/nutrition and dietetics because of their love of nutrition and how nutrition relates to health. In our membership demographics in the American Dietetic Association (ADA), we've found that RDs typically enter practice as clinical dietitians, and only after some years of experience do some tend to then migrate into management positions such as clinical nutrition service management or foodservice management.”
Lafferty says part of the reason for the lag in interest at the start of careers is the lack of encouragement at the academic level, and part is due to the emphasis the profession puts on clinical careers.
Management is a part of the core competency that every dietitian has to obtain to become an RD, Lafferty explains, but it's not a big component of the education anymore. “When ADA began in 1917 the real issue was feeding patients in hospitals and the management component was huge,” she says. “But as nutrition has become more of a science, we have gotten away from that.”
Lafferty notes that the issue is starting to be noticed. “I recently served on a brainstorming group at ADA on how do we pull management back in,” she says. “So ADA is now looking at it, too.”
Another factor at the academic level: a reduction in faculty specializing in dietetic management. Lafferty notes that membership in the Food Service Systems Management Education Council (FSSMEC), an organization composed of faculty members who teach the management component of dietetics in programs, has shrunk dramatically in recent years.
The result is that required management courses increasingly are taught by faculty whose PhDs are in nutrition or nutrition-related fields, not food systems management.
“They teach out of the textbook, not their own knowledge or experience,” Lafferty says. The result, she says, is that students are often turned off by rote, bland courses.
“Finding qualified faculty who have the academic credentials as well as the experience credentials to teach these courses in dietetics is tough,” she concedes.
Too true, agrees Kevin Sauer, a PhD candidate who teaches in the Dept. of Hospitality Management & Dietetics at Kansas State. He “didn't know the management side even existed” when he was completing his dietetics degree, he says.
Sauer went on to a full career in foodservice management in several onsite segments, experience he uses liberally when teaching. “I know I make an impression because former students come back and tell me about how they remember the things I said,” he offers.
There is also the dilemma of how to fit more management content into an already rigorous dietetic curriculum. “One of the discussions we've had in ADA is that management truly is advanced practice for dietitians,” Lafferty says. “So, possibly, we need to continue with our current curriculum at the entry level, which already has a management component, but then offer a focus on management at an advanced level for those who decide on management later in their careers.”
Some schools continue to emphasize management more than others. Take the program at Kansas State, where many of the active dining program managers also teach courses in the university's coordinated (undergraduate) dietetic program. That gives them the opportunity to pass on a real-life perspective on the industry and to communicate their enthusiasm about their jobs.
“We can work with students as educators and not just as workers,” says Molt. “It's the first time the students have been in a class where they are expected to use management skills and not just working skills and a lot of them really like that opportunity. We also try to teach students that even clinical can become management at some point in their careers. After all, there are a lot of clinical managers in hospitals, and promotions usually are into management roles. In our part of the world, many students go out into facilities where they find they have to be both clinical and management.”
With management often marginalized in the academic program, internships generally offer the best opportunity for the industry to make its case. However, the rigors of the established protocol and certification process often limit what can be done.
Internships are usually run by academic programs, and to be an accredited dietetic internship a foodservice facility has offer certain competencies delineated by certifying bodies like the ADA or the Commission on Dietetic Registration.
“We have to work within those competencies,” explains Mary Angela Miller, MS, RD, LD, FADA, administrative director of nutrition services at Ohio State University Medical Center, which participates in an extensive dietetic internship program. “We can't just substitute what we think students should learn for what is required for us to remain accredited. We have to make sure that what we offer for a particular rotation meets the competency. Now, if they are being sent for their foodservice piece, we can be a little creative in how we meet the competency, but we can't change it.”
Miller says her department tries to communicate a realistic sense of what foodservice management entails and why it might be a desirable career track for certain individuals. “We want to show them how exciting the jobs are, what an influence you can have,” she says, “so that when they leave here, they really have a sense of what a foodservice leader is and what he or she does. It's something I don't think many come to us with at all.”
She adds that it is also important that students learning management understand the “people” part of the job as well as the technical part. “When our interns do their special project assignments, we're not talking about just costing out recipes, we're talking about implementing a whole project, which takes people as well as IQ skills.”
How do you convey all this? By avoiding dull, rote tasks, for one thing, says Mike Folino, a former OSUMC intern who is now assistant director for patient foodservices and who generally takes a leading role with interns coming in for their foodservice management rotations.
Interns on foodservice management rotations at OSUMC go through a rigorous six-week regimen that packs a lot of information and hands-on experience into a very short time frame. The highlight is a group special assignment that involves planning a special café event.
“For these events, our students have to do the menu planning, figure out the costing of the food, generate the recipes, purchase the food and work with our marketing team to market the event,” says Folino. They also do all the setup and preparation and then work the event.
“We don't use our interns as free labor,” Folino stresses. “We never want a student to come over here and say, ‘Oh great, I have to chop tomatoes again today,’ or ‘I have to work the trayline.’”
Onsite foodservice directors interested in helping promote management careers in the industry have several avenues to pursue. Here are some:
Participate in internships. Offer your facility, get students in, reach out to local colleges with these programs and offer to get students in to get experience in your operation.
Offer to serve as adjunct faculty in academic programs, where there are many opportunities to teach the things you are already expert in, such as purchasing or facility layout and design; once there, also use the platform to promote careers in the industry by communicating how interesting, exciting and challenging it can be.
Support industry associations' efforts to reach out to students.
Hire students as part time as workers to expose them to your operations.
Hire students to help with projects.
Take students under your wing, mentor them and help them network within the industry.