I have one simple question: why does it seem that companies and their managers treat students and recent graduates like they have nothing to offer?
Perhaps I’ve been out of the job market for too long. I’ve been self employed in the landscaping industry for five years, with plans to continue with this in the future. Because of my lack of involvement in the standard job market, I’ve had the opportunity to silently observe friends and colleagues work through being employed in a variety of fields. I’ve also worked with seasonal contractors who look at students as basic labourers who know nothing or add little value. Not all employers are the same and many do a very good job of managing young people, but I would say that there are some significant problems that need discussing.
All of the problems discussed in this article are a retelling of experiences heard through speaking with dozens of young professionals. Not all the problems are present in every workplace, nor are any of them mutually exclusive, but they are worth a serious look. They are important because they are causing employers to miss out on incredibly valuable assets.
First and foremost, the student employee is generally not provided with tasks that meet their ability. It appears that student employees are given tasks that management deems they can reasonably handle. This is usually an excellent management strategy, as it is incredibly frustrating to be set up for failure. However, it’s important to remember that most students can handle more than one might think. We handle complex tasks all the time at school, so why wouldn’t we be able to handle the complex tasks at a place of business?
Another frustrating phenomenon that comes with being employed during or shortly after your studies is that companies don’t put students in leadership roles. This is a huge mistake. Those of us who list “leadership” as a skill on our CVs are very serious about it. We wouldn’t list it as a skill if we weren’t able to do it. Assigning a student a leadership role or making them the head of a team is something I would recommend to any business. You can guarantee that if someone has completed a degree, they have worked as a member of a group or managed a multi-faceted project. Give students and post-grad employees a team and see how they do. If their work isn’t up to standard, let them know. In many cases, there is a lot to lose with these types of projects; as long as they understand that, they won’t let you down.
The next issue I’ll discuss is basic. Stop treating student employees like they’re there for no other purpose than to get coffee. Being treated as “less than” is one thing that I’ve heard often. To employers: a student is not a threat to your position. They are not just there to run errands. Most importantly, they deserve the same amount of respect that you would give to anyone in your workplace. A good example of this can be found in the article titled “What I Learned as a UN Intern,” where Colin Mitchell speaks of his experience this summer at the United Nations. He says, “the consistent lack of respect and professional courtesy afforded to interns and young professionals is noticeable.” With this type of treatment present even at the UN, it is clear that this is not just a problem, but is wholly inappropriate. In my personal experience, with work or with my own business, I’ve experienced similar treatment. Respect should be the baseline, regardless of title. If this isn’t standard operating procedure at your place of work, some drastic changes in corporate culture should be in order. Young professionals should not under any circumstances have to tolerate outright disrespect.
Managing students is not hard. Regular performance evaluations and interviews with management that they do not directly report to can be a useful way of ensuring that progress is adequate. There is a very fine line between successful goal-oriented management and wasteful micromanaging, and understanding that line is essential to making use of young talent. There is a reason that I am so passionate about young professionals and it comes from running my own business.
As the owner of a small landscaping business, I have only had positive experiences with students. When my two friends and I started the business, we made a commitment to remaining entirely student owned and operated. What I have found while employing and working with students is simply incredible. I’ve been able to learn what makes them tick and how they best succeed. Based on everything I’ve seen, there are some things that are constant.
Students will work nine-to-five and they’ll also work five-to-nine with no complaints. A first-year business major created a two-page formula that my business still uses to calculate estimates. A sociology major designed the company logo which is used on everything from our website to our business cards. My student employees have excelled in a variety of tasks resulting in thousands of dollars in sales for my company. I have even put students in leadership positions that involved supervising sites with several employees completing work on a provincial contract.
I rely on employees’ ability to learn quickly. Hiring students has worked out for me because students have spent huge amounts of time learning quickly. Whatever degree a student is pursuing, you can be sure that they have an intricate understanding of how they learn best, and it regularly shows. It is an understatement to say that students have been integral to the success of my business.
The things that employers should take away from this article are simple:
- Stop offering students unpaid internships disguised as “valuable work experience.” If you employ unpaid interns, you’re ripping them off. I would advise business owners against taking advantage of students in this way primarily because it’s wrong and also because unpaid internships are illegal. There are significant subsidies and tax credits available for those that wish to hire students that can help recover the cost of their labour.
- In a similar vein to my first point, pay your students what you know they’re worth. Speaking from experience, offering students a bonus is a huge motivator, but nothing beats paying them a few dollars more than the industry standard for their position. You’ll have an employee that knows they’re valued because they’ll see it in their wallet.
- Consider money that you spend on a student or recent graduate as an investment. If businesses invest in training students, they will quickly see a substantial return on that investment as the capabilities of their student employees expand.
- Give students roles that see them leading in some capacity. Students are young and they know things that senior employees probably don’t. I imagine companies could save at least some money by letting the young guns call a couple shots.
- Most importantly, foster a work environment of mutual respect. Every time I hire a student, I tell them: “You don’t work for me, you work with me.” This attitude has taken me far. I hold them to a certain standard of quality, and they hold me to that same standard. This results in work that the entire company can be proud of. It makes students more comfortable coming to me with problems, and with solutions. Obviously there are some standard boundaries – they still report to me and I still manage them. However, when you show your student employees that they are valued, that they are capable of leading, and that their opinions are considered in decision making, they will represent a huge return on investment for your company.
To conclude, for me, students are not a suggestion but a prescription for success. If students can generate thousands of dollars in revenue for a small business like mine, think about what they could do for a business like yours. I’m not suggesting anything unreasonable, and neither is any other student. Move forward in your employment practices with that in mind.
Christopher Vanderburgh is a fifth-year (Honours) Politics student and the Features Editor of The Athenaeum