Five-star venue provides hope for unemployed youth
n a five-star hotel the quality of the service is as much a part of the experience as the fabulous facilities and décor.That ’s why I was surprised when the young man taking my drinks order at the Houghton Hotel in Johannesburg wasn’t familiar with a Steelworks. I discovered why later. Almost 10% of the staff here are trainees, probably in their first job and with no previous hospitality coaching. The hotel’s CEO, Arnold Forman, cares enormously if the guests have any reason to co mp l a i n . But he cares even more about giving township youngsters a chance to carve out a career and become economically independent.
High-spending guests don’t expect to interact with staff fresh from township schools without any five-star finesse, and there have been minor mishaps, he admits. “Obviously from a brand perspective it has its repercussions. It’s a risk, because you haven’t gone to hotel school, you’re not polished, you’re coming here straight off the streets and we’re giving them an opportunity. So I could damage my brand by bringing in youth that aren’t trained. But if you don’t give these kids a job, how are they going to get the experience to help them get a job going forward ?
The hotel tries to educate its guests on how it’s doing its bit for society and some guests adore the youngsters. Others have given critical reviews, but as the first year draws to a close, the Houghton Hotel Academy will soon welcome its second batch of 20 novices.
The Houghton Hotel was voted Africa’s Leading New Hotel in 2020 in the World Travel Awards and the Best Hotel in SA 2020 in SA’s Finest, a publication of The Tourism and Hospitality Counsel. So it has a lot to lose, but its industry-leading internship scheme seems more likely to enhance its reputation than tarnish it. The move was inevitable, given Forman’s background. The scheme is run in partnership with Afrika Tikkun, a nongovernment organisation founded by Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and philanthropist Bertie Lubner to mend a society broken by apartheid. Forman, CEO of the Lubner family’s investment business, was also brought on board.
Afrika Tikkun has grown to offer cradle-to-career support, at crèches and centres where children can get a meal, do sport, use computer labs and join vocational training. Its Afrika Tikkun Services unit focuses on skills training, because what will happen to SA if its most energetic and productive generations sit at home bored, frustrated and aimless? Forman asks. In the intervening years, his own career had taken a twist. The Lubners were involved in the Houghton, a development of elite apartments and a hotel that tanked in the 2009 financial crisis.
Forman was seconded to rescue the unfinished project, then led a management buyout of the hotel. That allowed him to create the academy, with year-long training that includes workshops run by professional hoteliers, and hands-on experience in the reservations, accounts, housekeeping and food & beverages departments. At the end they receive a letter certifying that they have trained with a world-class hotel, giving them a priceless career boost. Since Zinhle Ngcobo (29) already held a diploma in financial management she found her niche in the finance department. After a few months of focusing on procurement and stock, she was able to train two other youngsters. She’s now one of three interns to be kept on permanently, and her position will enable her to support her brother financially. Ngcobo had spent three years applying for jobs before she heard about the NGO. “It was the best thing that’s ever happened for me because I really started to grow and I’m still growing,” she says.
The CEO of Afrika Tikkun Services is Onyi Nwaneri, whose energy and passion for SA are boundless. She screens all the youngsters before they join vocational training schemes, and has found only one in five shows enough commitment to be selected. Initially Ngcobo wasn’t one of them, until she followed Nwaneri down a corridor begging to be accepted and promising not to let her down.
“Sometimes you have diamonds around you and you do n ’t know [it],”she says.
Two things are remarkable about the Houghton Hotel Academy, Nwaneri says. One is that it was created during the Covid-19 lockdown, when most hotels closed or were retrenching. The other is how it embraces people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Because of the courageous CEO we have people whose lives have changed. We have a dream that any child will be able to experience a life different from the one they were born to.”
Afrika Tikkun’s goal can only succeed if companies in various fields partner with it to offer work experience.