Education Executive's Update

Making the Most of Student Employees

Take a stroll around any college or university campus and you’re likely to encounter student employees. In all types of institutions, incorporating students into the workforce is commonplace. About 3,400 postsecondary schools employ students through federal work-study funds, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Add to that students paid with institutional funds or from other sources, and the scope of student employment broadens appreciably.

Certainly the practice mirrors overall student behavior when it comes to combining working with studying. The National Center for Education Statistics notes that for the most recent reporting period, approximately 40 percent of full-time college students 16 to 24 years old, and 76 percent of part-time students in the same age group, were employed. And a recent study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that over the past 25 years, more than 70 percent of college students have worked while attending college.

One viewpoint is that if students are going to work, why not keep them on campus, or at least under the institution’s umbrella? The readiness of students to work, whether due to preference or necessity, can help meet needs for part-timers to fulfill a variety of support functions.

In any case the benefits of student employment programs should not be overlooked, says Dr. Chester Goad, director of disability services at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville.

“Some might view providing students with jobs as a favor, but that could not be further from the truth,” he says. “It’s a symbiotic relationship, and the truth is university staff and administrators rely heavily on student workers to complete everyday tasks and accomplish our mission.” He notes that students meet their goal of earning some money, and the school benefits from workers who benefit from the opportunity and the convenience.

A WIN-WIN

Nora Huth, student employment coordinator in the Office of Student Financial Planning at Stetson University in DeLand, FL, says that such programs strengthen connections and help advance the institution.

“Many students facilitate projects within their student positions that benefit other students and the university as a whole,” she says. “Since our students are part of our community, they understand the needs and are always looking to make an impact.”

Huth says that student employees embody the institution’s motto of “dare to be significant.” At the same time, the work experience they gain can be invaluable. Among other benefits, supervisors provide evaluations each semester that students are encouraged to use when seeking internships or employment outside for the university.

“Often this is the student’s first job, and it’s ideal to have supportive supervisors looking out for the best interest of the student,” she says.

Of course along with its pluses, student employment brings its own set of challenges. Not only are the faces constantly changing, but college students have other priorities which may supersede devotion to their jobs. And personnel to whom they are assigned may not have experience in supervision.

ESTABLISH EXPECTATIONS, BUT BE FLEXIBLE

Goad says a key in employing student workers is making sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to expectations.

“We require students to attend an orientation to our office policies and procedures, and that’s where we cover contract information, confidentiality, the organizational chart and simple protocol,” he says.

He also advises focusing on flexibility.

“We very much appreciate that students require us to be flexible, but we’ve learned that student workers are pretty flexible in helping us out as well,” Goad says. “We’ve found that retaining great student workers throughout their college experience is the best-case scenario for consistency and is a win-win. They gain valuable experiences and references, while we enjoy more consistency in service to students and the campus at large.” He adds that some student workers end up as graduate assistants or full-time employees of the university, another benefit to both parties.

Huth stresses the importance of good communication supported by technology. “Good communication has been extremely important between supervisors and our office,” she says. Her department has created standard emails to keep students and supervisors apprised of each step of the hiring process, and most steps in the hiring process have been automated. While students still need to complete the I-9 and original W-4 in person, other forms are available online.

Understanding generational differences is also important, Huth says.

“As millennials, they need to feel a part of the team and fully understand their utility in their position to work at their highest level,” she says. “We hold monthly supervisor development sessions to assist in facilitating the best experience for the students in our program.”

TRAIN THE SUPERVISORS

At its best, a student employment program can transform both students and supervisors according to Amy Bravo, assistant dean of career services at New York Institute of Technology in New York City. That’s the impetus for a number of changes now under way, including a new training program for the institution’s 90+ campus supervisors. Training topics include completing employment paperwork, writing job descriptions that develop students’ skills, and effectively supervising student workers.

“Many people who serve as student employee supervisors do not supervise staff and have never been trained as supervisors,” she says. “This training can help them advance professionally.”

Another move is shifting responsibilities for support functions to trained professionals.

“Over time, our office became the clearinghouse for all time-sheet, payroll and financial aid questions,” she says. “We are now working more closely and intentionally with our partners in these areas to provide their immediate expertise on related issues.”

Staff are also creating an online repository for on-campus employment information so students will no longer need to walk to a variety of offices for the forms and information they need. Access to the site will also make it easier for other offices and programs to obtain relevant information.

The office has also initiated a marketing campaign to encourage qualifying work-study students to participate in community service internships.

“This rebranding is being done in an effort to increase our students’ participation in off-campus positions,” Bravo says. “These positions are paid more than on-campus positions and help us reach our annual goals.”

Efforts are also under way to expand visibility for the program and its positive impact.

“We just celebrated National Student Employment Week, which was significantly ramped up this year,” Bravo says. “We’re still receiving feedback from faculty and staff who never knew we had as many student workers doing such high-level work.”

Even if not quite transformational, student employment clearly offers much to many. With up-to-date process management, effective support for supervisors and good communication, it can be of substantial benefit to all concerned.

MORE INFORMATION

  • The National Student Employment Association serves professionals involved with programs for college student employment. Its services include publications, research and professional development opportunities. For more details: www.nsea.info.
  • The University of Minnesota offers a variety of helpful tips at its “Working With Student Employees” site. Topics include hiring, deciding student job classifications, supervising and evaluating student workers, and more. Check it out at www1.umn.edu.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.

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