Bartending students at Tampa school prepare to fill pandemic void

As bars and restaurants begin to approach full capacity, the hospitality industry is facing a worker shortage. Cover photo provided.

American Bartending School, operating in Tampa for more than 40 years, takes a hands-on approach to teaching.

Students will find themselves behind the bar on the first day of class, putting to use the skills and knowledge introduced during the lecture period. And by putting words into action so quickly, most students are able to complete the course in about two weeks.

“Repetition means the more you do something, the better you become,” says James Rosa, who handles admissions and placement for the school. “Why not get you back there the first day and let you start to get acclimated? You can’t take an online class to pour. Here, you’re getting the best hands-on teaching you can in the best practical setting for you.”

The facility features nearly a dozen full-size bar stations with ice bins, working three-sink setup, soda guns and speed rails. The rails and back bars are fully stocked, except devoid of alcohol — almost every liquid in the building is water, sometimes colored with food dye for an authentic look.

Rosa added putting students behind the bar so early in the course is important in pushing away jitters. By building drinks on the first day, based on that day’s lesson, students are able to overcome nervousness before it even has a chance to develop.

The fast pace of the course is especially important given the current state of the hospitality industry, which has been impacted more intensely by the COVID-19 pandemic than almost any other sector. As vaccinations increase, bars and restaurants looking to open at full capacity are in need of qualified bartenders to serve their expanded clientele.

“Multiple places contact us every week, like, ‘Hey, we need bartenders,'” says Rosa. “Our biggest thing is to help you find something that fits you, fits your style — and where you fit their environment, too.”

Many in the industry, including Rosa, believe the shortage stems from increased unemployment benefits being offered by the federal government because of the pandemic. While higher payouts may play into the decision some former servers and bartenders have made to not return to the industry, data indicate other factors are in play as well.

Unemployment in the Tampa Bay area, for example, hit its peak in April 2020 at nearly 14 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as reported by Kellie Cowan of FOX 13 Tampa Bay. The number now sits around 4.2 percent, only slightly higher than pre-pandemic levels.

These numbers imply a significant portion of former hospitality workers have moved on to different industries, some chasing a dream job as part of what the New York Times has dubbed the “YOLO” economy — short for You Only Live Once.

Regardless of the reason, the bartender shortage is real — and has real-word consequences.

In its four decades of operation, American Bartending School has served aspiring bartenders from all across the Tampa Bay area, and has sent graduates back out into nearly all of the surrounding communities. The school offers rolling enrollment, with coursework beginning each Monday as long as students have signed up. Especially lately, there has been no shortage of pupils.

Scheduling is flexible, with morning, afternoon and evening classes as mix-and-match options.

“The availability is open, as long as we don’t have so many we have to cap our classes due to guidelines from the (Center for Disease Control),” says Rosa. “We really don’t want to exceed 12 students at a time.

“Our biggest thing is really just having students in a safe environment, in a controlled environment, which makes for a good learning environment, too, because too big of a class is too hard to learn in. Smaller classes can be more hands-on, and we want to make sure students have enough of the hands-on application to make them good at what they do.”

For more information on American Bartending School’s 40-plus years serving the Tampa Bay area, be sure to pick up a copy of the September 2021 print issue of Edible Tampa Bay.

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