Workin' for a Living

Janet Gong knows a thing or two about hiring students. As the associate vice chancellor of Student Affairs at University of California-Davis (UC-Davis), the 30 departments under her wing constitute the largest employer on campus. In fact, collectively it hires more than 50 percent of students on campus at UC-Davis — a number that runs into the thousands — to be in charge of everything from supervising buildings to driving the double-decker London buses around the community. Students are also paid to step in as sports referees, peer instructors, clerical support“and everything in between. Pretty much anything you can imagine,” says Gong.

And that’s child’s play considering what’s going on down the road at California State University, Chico, where students own and run the Bell Memorial Union — including the bookstore and marketplace — and will soon have the same responsibilities for a new recreation center under construction. According to Braydan Young, the business management junior who serves as vice president of Facilities and Services at this Associated Students corporation set up to handle the logistics, the plan employs 600 students at the union alone. The Wildcat Activity Center will add at least 100 part-time and full-time new jobs as Associated Students seeks workers to oversee maintenance, security and even spotters for the climbing wall.

The arrangement will no doubt become a hot model for the future. Y2M: Youth Media and Marketing Networks, a full-service marketing services agency in Boston specializing in the college arena, recently reported that 76 percent of survey respondents plan to work during their first year of college. More than half (54 percent) plan to work part-time 10 to 30 hours a week, 17 percent will opt for work-study opportunities and five percent intend to go full-out, working 40+ hours a week.

Common sense says those numbers will grow, especially after the Department of Education recently increased interest rates on Stafford loans, the largest federal student loan program, by 1.84 percentage points to 7.14 percent. Plus, loans now stand at 7.94 percent after a similar rate hike.

But finances aren’t the single driver, Gong points out. Campus jobs allow students to bring practical application to their academic work. For instance, biology, chemistry or physics majors working in a laboratory have the flexibility to apply what they learn in the classroom on the job and vice versa. “That makes learning real and significant,” she says. “It also reinforces their career options and their intentions about graduate study. Not to mention, students would be hard-pressed to find another employer as flexible and understanding of study conflicts than a university, adds Therese Hoehne, SPHR, director of Human Resources at Aurora University in the Chicago suburbs. Nor do they waste precious time with a commute — most jobs are a few minutes’ stroll away.

It’s certainly not a one-way street when it comes to counting the advantages, administrators assure. For starters, student workers are the best and brightest of their peers, in Gong’s experience. “They bring to us a great ability to be innovative, energetic, curious and smart about what they are doing. They bring the most current knowledge, what they have learned in the classroom from world-class facilities. As an employer, that is a very desirable set of characteristics,” she says. Student workers at UC-Davis have helped departments find more effective avenues, particularly when it comes to technology.

Warning: It’s Not All Roses

However, there is a point of diminishing returns. Research at UC-Davis shows that working on campus helps student succeed academically — as long as they’re not working too many hours. The sweet spot begins to fade after 13 hours a week, and once a student begins working 20 hours or more, academic success decreases, Gong reports.

At finals time, getting even a dozen hours out of a student can be a huge challenge, administrators across the country agree. Even working around sporting events and other campus activities presents a strain. Linda Olson, executive director of Communications at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA, lists the time factor as the biggest challenge of having students on the payroll. “There is always some sort of conflict that can come up, and the main thing is to be flexible, “ she says.

Her department, which hires a student to pitch in with tasks, such as general office duties, writing press releases and proofreading, assigns set hours each week, but Olson doesn’t squawk when someone calls in to say, “Tuesday won’t work for me. I need to do my hours on Thursday.” She’s also been known to let students take some work with them, to complete it after office hours, then e-mail it to her.

Gong tackles the situation by hiring more students than she needs to allow them to substitute for each other during hectic times. She plans to do without students during final examinations — or, at the most, working with severely curtailed hours from this group.

Administrators must be aware they may even need to readjust their concepts of time in the first place. “Managers need to be careful to judge whether a project is able to be completed in a certain amount of time,” says Helen Nunn, director of Financial Aid at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA. “If the project can’t be completed, the student must carefully document his work so the next person can pick up the task.”

Remember, too, that today’s students often hit campus with little or no work experience, which puts the college on the hot seat to train the workers in workplace basics. For instance, Olson assumes she will need to invest a few weeks showing her student worker how to photocopy, file and perform other general office work before this person gets a feel for what she is doing. “We give them a lot of feedback, which is very important,” Olson adds. For instance, when a student writes a press release, he will receive a critique from both a supervisor and Olson, who makes sure to hand the student a corrected version.

At William Woods University in Fulton, MO, Mary Ann Beahon sends the students who work for her in the University Relations department to professional development workshops to help them improve their skills and allow them to network with working PR folks. She assigns the two to four students in her department each semester to a variety of jobs, along with sharing samples from previous years so they can see what they’re shooting for. If they show competence and reliability, they get better assignments.

“When they leave here, they will have a portfolio to show prospective employers. We try to mentor them, much as we would new employees in any other business setting,” Beahon explains. “We’ve found that when you treat them as professionals, they are more likely to act like professionals.” Finally, check to see which personnel policies apply to student workers. Even though most are part-time, you still need to be cognizant of rules regarding things like discrimination, sexual harassment, confidentiality, ethical standards and evaluation/performance review and raises. Gong needs to keep a close eye on the hours students work, lest they automatically begin to accrue sick leave and vacation time.

“Yes, they do require some extra work and guidance,” Hoehne admits, “but the outcome is worth the time spent.”

Don’t Forget the Basics

Aurora University in Illinois puts between 150 and 200 student workers on its payroll over the course of a year — a vital move to keep the campus operating, says Therese Hoehne, the director of Human Resources. But that need doesn’t mean they can afford to overlook basic workplace etiquette and rules.

Each year, the university holds an orientation for new students workers and encourages returning student workers to attend as a refresher. Hoehne makes sure to cover these basics.

• How many hours they can work (maximum per week). This involves noting their schedules carefully and showing up for work on time, ready to work.
• How to dress for work, including hygiene issues. Aurora’s dress code specifies no jeans in the office areas, and T-shirts with writing (other than the university’s logo) are not appropriate. “This is often a new concept to them; we spend quite a bit of time on it,” Hoehne says. She also spells out appropriate hair care for work: no “doo-rags” or hats in the office, and so on.
• How to interview for a position on campus, and how to make a good impression on a potential supervisor.
• How to fill out timesheets and where to pick up paychecks.
• How to report harassment and avoid finding themselves accused of this intolerable act themselves.
• Basic work etiquette topics such as:
• How to call in sick or absent for any reason.
• Friends may not visit offices and spend time chatting while students are working.
• Cell phone? Off or silent please.