Creating a Positive Environment for Student Staff

July 23, 2013

By: Christina Bilinski
Affiliated Programs: 
Essential Management Skills

As we find ourselves in the midst of summer, many of our organizations have hired student staff for part-time positions, temporary work, and/or internships. Working with students can be rewarding for them and us; it can also be a bit more challenging, as they approach the workplace with very different mindsets than older workers. While each individual is different, experts have noticed trends in young people’s behaviors. Have you?  Let’s look at some of these trends, and ideas from real supervisors that work to maximize student productivity.

College students tend to have short attention spans – 3 to 5 minutes. This short span is constantly reinforced by the “sound bite” characteristics of modern media. Supervisors should consider this when giving directions. Short, concentrated chunks of information are much more effective than drawn out directions. Checklists and templates are effective in helping students focus on one area of work at a time. When monitoring student performance, it’s most effective to check in with student workers regularly after short assignments to maintain their focus and coach them for success.

Since they have always been surrounded by modern technology: computers, ATMs, cell phones, video games, and so on, students tend to be early adopters of new developments. Take advantage of their comfort with new media, software, and hardware. Don’t agonize over how your staid department can make use of Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr to reach your clients; encourage your student worker to come up with the ideas. This takes advantage of the young person’s natural strengths, provides a sense of belonging, and provides opportunities for growth and development.

Our young workers have been born into a rapidly changing society that has become increasingly violent. More than half come from homes affected by divorce, and more than 2/5 have mothers working outside the home. Because they are used to being lightly supervised, they tend to like to work independently. On the other hand, they also seem to crave friend contact. Supervisors can take advantage of this by placing students into an environment where they are surrounded by others, yet are not required to work on team projects. Supervisors should be very specific about the proper use of cell phones, iPads, texting, internet use, and the like during the work day.

Like their older counterparts, student workers are motivated by a favorable work environment, interesting and varied work, the ability to meet and work with different people, and recognition for work well done. Some students work solely for a paycheck, but many also seek job preparation skills, advancement, and references and referrals. Supervisors can take advantage of these motivations by setting and clearly communicating performance standards at every opportunity from the job description, through the hiring interview, through the orientation, to subsequent job assignments. Savvy supervisors who have openings year after year, make sure to encourage the best of their student workers with additional training, mentoring of others, and tangible rewards, such as raises, for excellent performance.

Working with student employees is mutually rewarding. They bring energy, spirit, creativity, and new ideas to the workplace. We provide a safe environment for them to learn new skills, test their strengths, and make connections with resources.