The tourism industry is contributing globally to a large number of jobs. More than one in seven enterprises in the EU’s non-financial business economy is considered as a “tourism activity” (EU, 2015). Widespread research in tourism economics confirms positive impacts on destinations and national and regional growth (Kum, 2015). Governments of many countries have mentioned that tourism is a powerful “industry without chimneys” that enables them to deliver on the promise of job creation (MRC, 2010). Perhaps most importantly, tourism provides jobs to women, young people and other disadvantaged groups in the labour market (Unifem, 2005).
Recently however, the qualification “without chimneys”, is increasingly being criticized. Negative social and environmental impacts of tourism on society are placing the industry for many dilemmas. Tourism contributes substantially to global CO2 emissions (Peeters, 2017) and many urban and city destinations are facing the boundaries of growth and suffering under the pressure of overtourism (Koens, 2017). With expected strong long-term growth of global tourism demand (UNWTO, 2011), the call for strategies that mitigate these negative social and environmental impacts will only become stronger, despite a temporary reduction of global numbers of travellers due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
When analysing global labour markets, it becomes clear that quantitative and qualitative composition of the tourism labour force is changing dramatically. Already existing gaps between labour demand and supply grow increasingly (WTTC, 2015), partially caused by EU domestic demographic trends with fewer young people entering into the labour force and a ballooning of senior population segments.
For professionals in a service sector like tourism, traditionally soft skills are relevant. The increasingly multi-cultural changes in the incoming tourist portfolio, dynamic changes in guests’ expectations and rapid developments in information technology demand more social skills in tourism labour. The skills looking, listening, cultural understanding and behaving in accordance to market requirements are required for jobs in the tourism industry (EU, 2015).
These skills are considered to become even more relevant, in a society that is facing fast technological changes.
Recent literature signal skills gaps between formal tourism education and human resources management in tourism. Especially, digital skills and green (sustainable development) skills, are hardly trained in tourism courses. World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) concludes that meeting the challenges relating to quality, adaptability and diversification are hindered by skills gaps and difficulties in recruitment Also, business owners have difficulties in recruiting higher skilled and more professional staff (WTTC, 2015).
Similarly, a recent EU study found that “Employers express ….. that many graduates are not “work-ready”. A key concern is that some courses are overly-theoretical and do not include sufficient work experience or give sufficient attention to the development soft skills and foreign language skills and to the acquisition of practical knowledge.” (EU, 2015)
The search process for the ideal skill set needed to perform competently in tourism-related jobs is thus ongoing. The increased complexity of the social, technical and environmental landscape in which tourism businesses interact, requires them to continuously innovate their business approaches. Since institutes of higher education are supposed to be frontrunners in knowledge production, this argument poses them for an enormous challenge, and might even be an existential threat. In addition, there is a lack of connection between theoretical foundations (delivered through lectures and workshops), and the rapidly changing business environment of tourism companies that are expected to recruit the graduates. Businesses appear not to trust on educational institutes anymore to deliver the professionals of the future (Deloitte, 2018). The quest for innovative learning methods that effectively allow new professionals to operate in this dynamic new tourism business environment, becomes louder.
A key concept that arises when reviewing literature on the link between theory and practice in higher education, is the concept of ‘engagement’ with wider society. Institutes of higher education are seeing better results and more effective learning outcomes if students are better enabled to engage with wider society (Ryan, 2015). Many tourism courses are thus developing methods in which students can interact outside the classroom, in real life settings, with industry stakeholders (Ryan, 2015). Industry placements allow students to develop transferable skills such as communication, customer relations, time management (Hughes, 2013). Also, research towards other forms of so-called work-integrated learning methods (WIL), confirms the positive personal and professional value that can be attained to these methods (Hughes, 2013).
A work-integrated learning (WIL) method engages three main actors of professional education: the university, the student and the employer or entrepreneur. It is argued that the “long-term outcomes of WIL can only be maintained if a stakeholder approach is adopted where partnerships between the university and industry are fostered and students are considered as learners.” (Cam Thi Hong Khuong 1, 2016).
Most examples of WIL relate to off campus strategies such as industry placements. It is argued however that more attention could be paid to on campus WIL methods, that receive less attention, especially in arts education (Fleischmann, 2015). In most tourism undergraduate courses, some kind of off-campus WIL is integrated as a standard component. On-campus WIL however hardly exists. In many educational programs there is little room for industry-based assignments, since they cannot be standardized, and lead to some extent to unpredictable outcomes.
So while in theory, collaboration between the three major actors in work-integrated learning should offer a space for innovation and students could be the agents of change of this innovation process, in practice, this goal is hard to achieve. There are two downsides to this practice: first, it seems that the student is not situated as an equal party to the learning table, their innovative strength is not valued. Secondly, it is a missed opportunity for business owners since they can not “pick the fresh brains” of young graduates and future consumers.
Following a traditional approach to tourism work-integrated learning thus is not enough in the current rapidly changing and complex global market dynamics, in which tourism businesses operate. To enable a productive interaction between young students and tourism businesses, new methodological approaches are needed for (on campus as well as off campus), work-integrated learning.
Innovations of work-integrated learning
While recognizing the urgency of connecting students and tourism industry in a different way, institutes of higher education should develop new methods of work-integrated learning, especially on-campus. However, in traditional WIL spaces, interaction between the three actors is always guided by a rigid more standardized and prescribed training delivery method or course manual. In this WIL approach, this would not be the case. Interaction between students, lecturers and industry should be more open, and not guided by predetermined formats. It should operate more like a laboratory:
- Students should engage, test and pilot (prototype) most recent tourism industry business innovations, allowing them to be up-to-date;
- Tourism entrepreneurs should engage with students and their social environment as young consumers, and see them as ‘fresh brains’ that have innovative views;
- University staff should engage with entrepreneurs to understand the complexities of their business environment.
The focus of the work-integrated learning community would be to design or create interventions and innovation practices.
The unique feature of such a work-induced learning (WIL) community is that the contextual enabling environment of each of the actors, is accepted and part of the laboratory. Each of the actors looks through a specific window and engage in this joint learning process. This is presented in the following graph:
The graph shows that a learning community brings together three different actors (students, lecturers and enterprise owners). All three of them, however, have their origin (home-base) in a specific enabling environment. This is the space where they study, work, teach, and interact with fellow students, roommates, other lecturers, colleagues or co-workers. This enabling environment creates for each of the actors a specific window of innovation, that allows them to approach and contribute to the learning community:
- the student is part of a society, a new generation of consumers, with a specific pattern and view on life. Students are consumers, but also designers, creative and ‘fresh brains’. They bring innovative perspectives on life. We call their perspective a social innovation window.
- the enabling environment of the tourism entrepreneur is the subsector of the tourism industry in which the business operates, and the commercial market environment; this enterprise business owner faces tough competition and needs to survive in fast changing market dynamics. His perspective on the learning community (and expectation of what to get out of it), is defined as a business innovation window.
- The third actor and perspective that joins the table of innovation in the learning community is the lecturer. This is an educational specialist that operates in the enabling environment of higher education. His expertise lies in the ability to design and implement effective approaches through the didactical innovation window.
The work-integrated learning community captures these three enabling environments as a starting point for design of context-specific tourism industry innovations. As opposed to the traditional way of work-integrated learning, the concept aspires to maximize its impact on the three environments that it is composed of: the higher education environment, the social environment of the student and the business environment of the tourism sector, by co-creating the process.
This paper presented a market-led approach to professional training in tourism. The Work Integrated Learning Community proposes a different to approach students approached: they are not consumers of education or receptive learners, but active participants in innovation labs. As per definition, failures and making mistakes define the innovative strength and potential success of these innovation labs.