The Nowsta Blog

Management tips and labor market insights to help you run your business

How to Manage Part-time Student Employees

By Josh Burnett on December 27, 2018

Every employee needs something a little different to do their best work. That was our thesis when we broke part-time employees down into five categories and provided management tips for each, based on Federal Reserve survey data on why people say they work part-time as opposed to full-time. Over a series of posts, we’re going to take a deeper dive into each category and explore how managers can better manage, motivate, and accommodate each type of part-time employee.

In this post, we’re going to cover staff who work part-time while also going to school.

What does a student employee look like?

If you buy into the stereotypes of millennials being lazy, you’d be surprised by how many college students hold down part-time jobs. According to the Federal Reserve's Economic Wellbeing survey, 22% of part-time employees cite school as a reason for not working full-time. A recent study from Citi and Seventeen magazine found that four out of five students work while attending college. That makes perfect sense when you consider the expenses they face. That same Citi/Seventeen study found that only 22% of students are getting help from their parents on tuition payments -- tuition payments, we might add, that have increased more than 26% in the last decade alone. When you also factor in books, food, and transportation, it becomes obvious why jobs are a necessity for most students.

Students’ work schedules vary widely depending on the number of classes they’re taking, how much money they need to make, and their own personal preferences. Some may work full-time and fit a few classes in where they can each semester, while others take 20 hours of coursework and can only devote a few hours a week to work. Overall though, the average student works 19 hours a week versus 47 for the average American. That disparity of course makes sense since students are balancing work with their educational pursuits.

Crucially for managers, most students don’t see their part-time job as part of their long-term career. It’s more of a temporary stepping stone -- a way to pay the bills during college, after which they’ll start their real career in whatever field they’re studying (granted, many students are a bit misinformed on that last point -- only 27% of grads actually end up working in the field they majored in).

Setting your student employees up for success

Part-time students present an interesting challenge for managers: How do you motivate someone who sees their job as inherently temporary, probably isn’t interested in your industry for the long term, and is also balancing their school obligations? We have a few ideas below.

Incorporate their interests

The primary concern for most students is finding a good job in the field they’re studying after they graduate. If you can find a way to contribute to that goal, you’ll probably see higher retention and better performance from your student employees. That’s why we recommend looking for ways student employees can exercise the skills they’re learning in school at your company -- even if those skills aren’t directly related to their job title. For instance, if you have a part-time cashier who’s studying marketing, why not let them audit your website and social media strategy? It’s a win-win: You get cheap but informed marketing advice, and the student gets a valuable experience they can put on their resume.

Provide clear expectations up front

Students are used to receiving a syllabus on the first day of a new class that tells them everything they need to know to excel, such as how assignments will be evaluated, the attendance policy, and acceptable classroom behavior. But even though it’s well-known that expectation setting is essential to employee success, many managers don’t offer that kind of guidance. This is especially detrimental to students working part-time, as many of them have never had a job before. Even the most universal workplace norms that feel obvious to you can be foreign to them.

As a manager, you need to make sure your student employees understand your expectations, or it’ll be your fault when they don’t live up to them. Employee handbooks and standard operating procedures for common tasks are the best way to communicate those expectations to new employees. But for student employees, you may want to consider extra training or special one-on-one sessions to supplement those materials and ensure they understand what you need them to do.

Give regular feedback

Education researcher John Hattie reviewed over 500,000 studies on student performance, and found that consistent feedback has more of a positive impact than any other factor. But once we leave school for the working world, we’re slowly conditioned to expect only annual or semi-annual feedback. Students don’t live in that world yet -- after a dozen or so years of school, they’re used to knowing where they stand at all times thanks to grades on assignments, office hours, and other feedback mechanisms.

While you probably don't have time to provide feedback to all employees with that same frequency, you should consider looking for ways to give student employees a bit of extra attention. Consider setting up a weekly meeting with these employees to go over their performance, or sending periodic emails letting them know what they're doing right and what they can improve. If there are no specific areas where you think a student employee can improve, don't be afraid to simply let them know they're doing a good job -- they may not know that if you don't provide explicit confirmation. 

Learn to leverage their schedules

On the one hand, the seeming randomness and day-to-day inconsistency of of class schedules can make it difficult to schedule student employees. But the good news is that once a student’s class schedule is set, it’s locked in for the entire semester, and you have 10 to 16 weeks of predictable availability. So, once a student employee’s classes are set, you should work with them to establish a weekly schedule of shifts that likely won’t have to change for a while.  

You should also keep in mind that students probably have different scheduling preferences than the typical employee. For instance, many would likely prefer a later start to the day if possible. That may strike you as a silly request to accommodate, but the data suggests it’ll get you better results. For instance, Seattle high schools recently pushed back class start times by an hour, and reported better attendance and academic performance. It’s not a stretch to imagine you can get similar results by scheduling student employees -- most of whom are just a few years past high school -- for afternoons and nights rather than mornings.

Anyone can be motivated

Student employees’ have a fundamentally different relationship to your job than the typical employee who has entered the workforce for the long haul. But that doesn’t mean they’re impossible to manage. Like any other group, if you understand what they want out of the job and know the other life activities they need to accommodate, you can find ways to keep them motivated and engaged.

Josh Burnett

About

Josh Burnett

Josh is a freelance writer based out of Corvallis, Oregon. If he isn't writing his own words, he's reading someone else's, spending time outdoors, or playing with his kids.

Helping you become a better manager.