If you’re wondering whether a degree is really necessary to work in hospitality management, you have a lot to think about. There’s no required credential to work in this job role that would make a college education mandatory. Some established restaurant managers, hotel managers and event planners started out with no college education and only a strong work ethic and a lot of ambition. However, the reality is that, in the modern tourism industry, not having a degree can hold you back from reaching your goals – at least, as quickly as you would like. Full-service hotel chains, upscale restaurants and most organizations and companies that hire event planners now look for managers who have at least some formal education in hospitality management, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). If you choose to forgo a degree, you’ll start your career all the way at the bottom, and working your way up could take a lot longer.

First Jobs in a Restaurant

The restaurant industry is unique, and you won’t get hired as a restaurant manager without considerable experience working in a restaurant environment. Most food service managers are promoted after years working in roles such as cook, waiter or waitress or host or hostess, according to the BLS. Since restaurant managers must be familiar with all areas of a restaurant’s operations, understanding what it takes to be successful in each of these roles is important.

Cooks work in the kitchen, preparing food under the guidance of a chef or head cook. Generally, you don’t need a formal college education to start working as a cook, a career path for which the BLS reports a median wage of just $12.12 per hour – well below the $18.58 median wage for all occupations. However, if you aspire to move up into a role like sous chef, head cook or executive chef, you will likely need some formal training, like a post-secondary certificate or associate’s degree in culinary arts. If you hope to eventually advance to a restaurant manager position, consider a hospitality management program that incorporates a few culinary courses into the curriculum, along with basic food preparation and sanitation courses and studies in menu planning and food and labor cost control.

You don’t need a degree to work as a waiter or waitress, for which the median wage is $10.47, or a host or hostess, with a $10.45 median wage. However, moving to management roles requires having the work ethic and education to stand out from the crowd.

First Jobs in a Hotel

If you begin your quest to become a hotel manager without a degree in hospitality or hotel management, this likely means starting out as a front desk clerk or bellhop. For front desk clerks, who book reservations and check in guests, the median wage is $12.08 per hour, the BLS reported. The average hourly wage for bellhops, who bring guests’ luggage to their rooms, is $12.55, according to the BLS.

Is It More Worthwhile to Get a Job in the Hospitality Industry or Get a Degree?

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From there, you might move up to a role as a concierge. Concierges help hotel guests coordinate personal services, arrange transportation and reservations and offer advice on places to go and things to do in the area. The pay is somewhat better for concierges, with an average wage of $16.13, the BLS reported.

Without a degree, it often takes several years of work experience in other roles in a hotel – plus consistent demonstration of your leadership skills – to work your way up to a promotion to an assistant manager role, according to the BLS.

First Jobs in Event Planning and Tourism

In event planning and tourism, entry-level jobs are often assistant roles and attendant roles. You may work as a lobby attendant or recreation attendant at a venue or an event assistant. The mean wage for these roles is in the $11 per hour range. If you start your tourism career as a tour guide, you’re looking at an average hourly wage of $14.25.

Event planners work in a number of different industries. Nearly one in five works in some sort of organization – civic, religious, grantmaking, professional or for another purpose, the BLS reported. Both the accommodation and food services industry and the arts, entertainment and recreation industry employ another 11 percent of the profession, and 10 percent of this workforce is employed in the area of administrative and support services. All of these employers are likely to require a bachelor’s degree, according to the BLS. Not having a degree could mean losing out on your dream job while recent graduates – even those with little hospitality experience and a background in general business administration or communications – scoop up the roles you want.

Although self-employed event planners –accounting for eight percent of the profession – don’t have to worry about meeting an employer’s requirements, it usually takes years of experience in a planning role to build up the reputation to work for yourself in this field.

The Powerful Combination of Education and Experience

With a degree in hospitality management, you can often save a good deal of time – time that you would have otherwise spent on hard but low-paying work – in attaining a management role. A degree can help you move into assistant manager and department manager roles in hotels or restaurants long before you would be likely to do without a formal education. For aspiring event planners, having a degree can put junior planner roles within your reach.

What makes a degree so valuable in a field that isn’t terribly academic in nature? For one thing, hospitality managers must perform a lot of different, high-level tasks, and having formal training in business management, accounting and human resources can all contribute to success in the work that keeps companies profitable. Then there’s the hands-on component of hospitality management programs. Because these programs prepare students for the roles of managing a restaurant, hotel or event, they provide valuable hands-on training opportunities in tasks that, as an entry-level employee, you may never have the opportunity to take on. Hospitality management students get to plan menus in college-run restaurants, but short-order cooks don’t. At student-run hotels, aspiring hotel managers have the opportunity to manage guest services and coordinate banquets and events that would elude them as mere bellhops or front desk clerks.

It’s not a matter of whether experience is better than education, but rather, how a formal education and the specific type of experience you gain through that curriculum can enhance the experience and skills you have to offer as a management candidate.

Additional Resources

What Is a Typical First Job for Someone With a Degree in Hospitality Management?

Am I Better Off Getting a Job at a Hotel or Going Straight to Getting a Degree in Hotel Management?

How Important Is Hands-On Experience in a Hospitality Degree Program?