BackTalk: Keep Your Student Workers

By Maria C. Bagshaw

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, almost half of all freshmen surveyed (47.2 percent) plan to work to help pay for school. Additionally, 8.8 percent of freshmen anticipate borrowing over $10,000 for school expenses, the highest percentage in the 40-year history of the survey. While this indicates tough economic times, it also means that our pool of potential library student workers is on the upswing. If in the past your selection was sparse, today you have more choices to develop a really smart and savvy group of 'front-line library ambassadors.'

Of course, if yours is like many libraries with tight budgets, you may not have the financial incentives to retain these well-trained student workers year after year. So, how do you recruit and retain high-quality and loyal student workers? And what does this mean for your library and its services as a whole?

Choose wisely

At Lake Erie College (LEC), our turnover of student workers is extremely low; we usually have a return rate of 80 percent to 90 percent each year. How do we do it? A little engagement can go a long way in recruiting and keeping a good student work force.

Our library is part of a small liberal arts college with a total student enrollment of about 1000. With only two full-time, degreed professional staff, we rely heavily on our ten to 12 student workers to perform everything from circulation duties to handling minor problems in the computer labs. Several factors play into keeping the students happy, but it all starts with good recruitment.

Students generally come on board in three ways: they sign up in the human resources office; current student workers recommend their friends; or students will apply to work in the library because they 'love it.' In each case, the interview process is vital to finding candidates best suited to library work. It is important to be discerning, as one student's attitude can affect all the students and cause problems later in the semester. Look for those who may be familiar with customer service, can pay attention to detail, and have the demeanor to enjoy working in a library atmosphere.

Once you have made your selection, take the time to make them feel part of the team. Our new student workers are given a Student Worker Handbook detailing their duties and about two hours of training, including a 90-minute one-on-one session with the reference librarian. We also take time to emphasize the importance of the students' contributions to the library as well our expectations.

Keep 'em busy

A combination of routine and challenging tasks offers students more job satisfaction, and that satisfaction helps keep good student workers year after year, as well as offering your patrons some consistency of services. At LEC, each student worker has a special job, such as working with periodicals, overseeing the patron database, minor weeding tasks, or processing reserve items. Each student worker, therefore, has an important responsibility other than the more mundane tasks of checking items in and out and shelving books.

Also, when possible, reward deserving student workers. About every two years, a student worker who has proven to be exceptional is put in charge of our interlibrary loan. This is a coveted position, and with the extra responsibility comes additional flexibility in hours that the other student workers don't get.

Evaluations are also an opportunity to engage student workers. At the end of each school year, our student workers are given a formal evaluation of their performance as well as the chance to make comments (name optional) about their work experience and what could be improved. Students can rate their interactions with faculty, other students, and their supervisors and answer open-ended questions. This reinforces their feelings of being an important part of the library.

Show you care

Offering little perks can also help keep your best workers. Can students make their own schedules at the beginning of each semester to fit with their other activities? Can they choose their total hours? Of course, more money would be nice. But we are not permitted to give our student workers raises - they receive the minimum wage. So, we use little things to let them know they are important to us: a candy bowl for finals week, or a pizza party at the end of the year.

Above all, treat your student workers like the adults they are. Take their education as seriously as they do. In return, they will offer great service with minimal professional staff input and financial resources and at the same time they'll develop important research and people skills that will endure well past their college experience.

Author Information
Maria C. Bagshaw is Reference/Media Center Librarian, Lake Erie College, Painesville, OH.

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