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8 Simple Rules for Managing Student Workers

Making the most of campus employment programs
University Business, May 2013
Top employee: UT Austin awarded its first annual Student Employee of the Year award (with its $500 prize) in 2011 to Brandon Okafor. A Geological Sciences senior, Okafor had been nominated by his two supervisors in that department, where his duties included assisting with building projects and events. Okafor had previously worked in a variety of other campus departments.

In her role as web manager and assistant director of institutional marketing at Elms College (Mass.), Karolina Kilfeather routinely relies on student workers to help carry the department’s workload.  She has found that while they may make valuable contributions, students often pose special management challenges.

“I have had a student worker who is incredibly creative and enthusiastic, but was inconsistent with his schedule and very lax about notifying my office when he would not be able to come to work,” Kilfeather explains. “I’ve also had to work around the fact that an on-campus job is often their lowest priority after schoolwork, friends, and sports, so deadlines have to be both flexible and frequently repeated.”

At the same time, student workers at any college or university can be real assets in accomplishing key tasks.

“In employing students, the institution can experience increased retention, diversity in student resources, and support in both everyday office tasks and longer-term research and programming,” says Carol Lingrosso, student employment manager and scholarship coordinator for California Lutheran University. “And by understanding both the departmental needs of their office and the perspective of the student population, student workers are able to provide balanced ideas and suggestions to their supervisors.”

Kilfeather adds that the perspective provided by younger workers can also be invaluable in understanding student interests and attitudes. “No matter how good I think I am at relating to nineteen-year-olds, it’s good to have an actual young person to give me some insight.”

As a readily accessible labor pool, student workers have long been an integral part of most institutions’ human resource planning as well as a basic component of financial aid work-study programs. In fact, with challenges ranging from state budget cuts to the loss of federal stimulus funds, schools such as The University of Texas at Austin and Front Range Community College (Colo.) have increased internal funding for student employment. 

A key factor is affordability. While positions in technical areas such as IT pay upwards of $20 an hour on some campuses, more typical wages range from $7.25 to $12 per hour for any job, according to an informal analysis of several institutions.

Offering both benefits and challenges, the use of student workers can certainly help any institution meet overall human resource demands. Here are eight rules for ensuring campus student employment programs are a success.

Send Them to Boot Camp

At Oakton Community College (Ill.) orientation sessions, new student employees get a crash course in business etiquette, avoiding shortcomings such as showing up late or skipping out on scheduled work assignments, and other topics. “The sessions also cover how to make the often unexpectedly tricky transition from student in the classroom to employee in the office while remaining in the same building,” says Robin Vivona, manager of career services. 

Ongoing training is also key. Lingrosso suggests tapping into the vast academic resources on campus. That’s what officials at The University of Texas at Austin did for the Student Employee Excellence Development (S.E.E.D.) program. Its free, one-hour workshops cover 16 topics, offered twice each per semester, and are presented by experts from 11 partner groups across campus. Employment basics, time management, and work/life balance are a few of the topics covered, and students can become certified after program completion.

The more advanced certification requires a project to further student employee training. “One student created an impressive set of training materials for the mentors in her program, and her supervisor will be using those materials long after she graduates,” shares Amy Greenspan, student employment coordinator. “These kinds of learning opportunities motivate student employees and create a happier, more productive student workforce.”

Get Student Input

At St. John’s University (N.Y.), student insights have been important in developing new approaches to the management of student workers, says Thomas Galard, associate vice president for human resources. Last year, an ad hoc committee conducted several focus groups with student workers as part of its efforts to redefine the student worker experience. In addition, a student worker satisfaction survey was revised to include questions on perception of the interview process, the effectiveness of coaching and mentoring, and awareness of transferable skills. The results have guided procedure revisions and training material development.

Put it in Writing

A key in working with students is making job expectations clear.

“Supervisors do well not to take too much for granted,” Greenspan says. “Even with more experienced student workers, it’s vital to establish expectations, both as to what the job entails and as to what good performance looks like.”

Written job descriptions, daily or weekly briefings, and one-on-one time with students can all help in clarifying expectations. When supervisors take the time to communicate such details, students are more likely to perform successfully.

A part of this process is providing meaningful feedback on job performance. “This generation thrives on feedback,” Greenspan says. “The earlier and the more frequent, the better.”

Train the Trainers

At St. John’s, training modules developed in-house have covered topics such as interviewing students, coaching, providing feedback, and linking transferable skills. An online supervisor toolkit includes resources for preparing job descriptions, templates for setting work objectives, sample evaluation sheets, and coaching tips. The university’s “Supervisors Guide to Managing Student Workers” is kept updated with current training opportunities and policies.

Group discussions for supervisors can also be helpful. UT Austin, Greenspan holds a Student Employment Forum each semester and has organized a Student Employment Coordinating Group with representatives from offices whose functions touch student employment (e.g., HR, payroll, graduate school, and student accounts receivable. That group discusses issues that impact student employment, she notes. “In a campus the size of ours, these kinds of collaborative efforts are key to making sure that all the faculty and staff who work with student employees have the information they need.”

Recruit Right

A focus on stepping up efforts to attract student workers can also prove worthwhile, says Daniel Pascoe Aguilar, director of the University of Oregon career center. A cross-campus Student Employment Taskforce (SET) there explores how to improve the recruiting process. While the effort is still in its early stages, strategies so far have included developing a student/parent brochure, launching an FAQ webpage, and holding weekly workshops on employment and job-search strategies for students and parents.

“Our goal is to better support students in their understanding of the meaning of working,” Aguilar says, adding that this helps improve their professional performance.

At Oakton, awareness of the benefits of working on-campus is a focus area. Information on student employment is included at events such as a fall festival and student and parent orientations, Vivona notes. Her department hosts an open house and pizza party, she says, “to ensure students know our location and how much fun we can be.”

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

As a supplement to traditional work-study assignments, managers should be thinking about opportunities for unpaid internships, Galard says, adding that the primary purpose of an academic internship is to provide a learning experience to the student, with the labor performed a secondary priority. “Managers need to be willing to expend more energy in teaching the student than they may receive back in actual work contribution,” says Galard.

Praise the Praiseworthy

While some tasks performed by student workers may fall into the mundane category, recognizing outstanding work can enhance the image of student employment programs and boost worker morale.

At UT Austin, an annual Student Employee of the Year competition has been well received. “This year’s finalists demonstrated the depth of our student employees’ contributions,” Greenspan says. Finalists included the student director of the Campus Environmental Center, a coordinator of a volunteer program for University Health Services, and a team leader for an IT support group. The winner was an undergraduate research assistant and mentor who applied computer science and astronomy skills to operate a telescope remotely for the benefit of the students he mentored.

Keep Them Learning While Earning

While the work performed by student employees must serve the needs of the institution, their own learning potential should also be considered.

“Student employees are here to learn, and their on-campus jobs can and should be an extremely valuable part of their education at the university,” Greenspan says. “A supervisor who views himself as an educator, as having a role in furthering the university’s mission, is likely to be more motivated and, in turn, to have more motivated student employees.”