Taking On-Campus Student Employment to the Next Level

September 29, 2011

Daniel Fusch, Academic Impressions

The 2010 census data paints a bleak financial picture for recent graduates, and as the recession lingers, it's clear that many of the students enrolled at your institution will be graduating into a very difficult market. There has rarely been a better time to conduct an aggressive rethinking of your on-campus employment opportunities.

We reached out to Brett Perozzi, the associate vice president for student affairs at Weber State University and a key thinker and innovator on this issue, to learn more about how on-campus employment opportunities can be structured well to enhance student learning and prepare students well for entry into their future careers.

Perozzi offered us advice on these four items:

  • Being intentional in who you involve when planning employment opportunities across a division
  • Defining learning outcomes for your on-campus employment opportunities
  • Offering targeted training programs that focus on the learning outcomes and on career development
  • Assessing the effectiveness of your on-campus employment programs

"The key that I have found is selecting specific learning outcomes (for example, outcomes focused on critical thinking, communication skills, problem-solving skills, leadership), and then teaching and training students around those specific skill sets. Often we think: "Well, of course students will become better problem-solvers after these employment opportunities." But you need to train for this and provide structured opportunities for this learning to occur. Good on-campus employment programs select specific learning outcomes, provide relevant and targeted training, and assess progress."
Brett Perozzi, Weber State University

Planning: Involve the Right People Early

"Get the people who need to be involved on board early," Perozzi advises. "Don't get several steps in and then surprise people. This may sound like very basic advice, but in practice it can require some real rethinking."

For example, Perozzi asks:

  • Do you have a student employee on your planning team for on-campus employment opportunities? Inviting student perspectives into the planning process (and not only through a survey but through a student representative at the table) can be key to ensuring that your employment opportunities are relevant and impactful
  • Do you have an "outside voice" to give objective feedback on the learning outcomes of your program? For example, Perozzi recommends inviting a faculty member who can help you align your learning outcomes with general education learning outcomes

Learning Outcomes to Guide On-Campus Employment

Perozzi notes two approaches to defining learning outcomes for on-campus employment opportunities:

  • An organic or "grassroots" process, in which the planning team approaches student workers and their supervisors and inquires about the skill sets those students are or should be gaining through their specific employment opportunities
  • Starting with institutionally-accepted learning outcomes (such as outcomes drawn from the accrediting agency or the learning outcomes from the institution's general education curriculum)

"My suggestion is to do a little of both," Perozzi advises. "You need your program to be closely aligned with and reinforcing the students' academic learning experience. Start with the broad learning outcomes and then approach students and supervisors and ask what they see that may be missing from the list."

Training that Matters

Training that prepares students to use their on-campus work as opportunity for both enhanced learning and career preparation, it's critical that training for on-campus employment be designed intentionally to meet learning outcomes. For example, Weber State University has defined 19 learning outcomes for student employees within the student affairs division, and has grouped those outcomes into four categories (responsibility and accountability; communication; intrapersonal competence and civic engagement; problem-solving and critical thinking). Weber State then designs its on-campus employment training around those categories.

Here is Perozzi's advice for adapting Weber State's successful approach at your own institution:

  • Be intentional in preparing presenters and facilitators -- provide them with the learning outcomes and let them know the specific employment categories who will be attending the training; then ask the presenters to bring you a methodological outline for feedback
  • While focusing the training on the skill sets you've defined, infuse the training with open discussion of the relevance of these skills to students' future careers
  • Integrate a self-assessment or discovery tool to help students define their own strengths, and provide facilitated discussion of how students can leverage this new information to develop professionally and enhance their future employment opportunities

"Invite students to think about their career development early," Perozzi suggests; "often students flood the career center during their last term on campus. Invite them to think more intentionally and reflectively about their on-campus employment opportunities and their skills development."

Finally, Perozzi suggests advocating for departments in your division to tie employment opportunities to particular majors and careers where possible. For example, create research and data analysis positions for students in the college of education -- have future teachers reviewing data collected from the field.

Assessment of On-Campus Employment

Perozzi offers three pieces of advice for assessing your on-campus employment program:

  • At the front end, think through how you will feed the data you collect back into the design of the program to improve it
  • Put in place multiple methods to assess your program
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of your student training, as well

On the topic of multiple assessment methodologies, Perozzi offers the example of an assessment that includes:

  • A pre- and post-  self-assessment, in the form of an intake survey and an exit survey
  • Supervisor evaluation at two points of time -- after the first two months of employment (far enough in that the supervisor can comment meaningfully) and after the first year (to track improvement)