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Boise State enacts workplace initiatives to combat student underemployment

Photo by Claire Keener

Boise State is working to implement new strategies for the hiring and sustainment of student employees amidst national and university-wide workforce shortages.

With bulletin boards covered in hiring advertisements and frequent job fairs, it seems everywhere on campus is hiring right now. As the university slowly returns to normalcy after a pandemic lockdown, some university employers have not been able to recover as quickly.

“The first thing we [asked] when we all went home to work remotely for the pandemic, how do we hire, train and maintain quality student staff members?” said Marc Dhoore, the Help Desk Manager for Boise State University. “It’s changed dramatically.”

The Help Desk typically employs between 40 and 60 students. When COVID forced many campus operations to shut down, Dhoore managed to hire only 10 to work remotely.

“Two years ago we would get a whole 15, 20, 30 applicants for a position. This year over the course of three months I believe we’ve had one, maybe two,” Dhoore said.

Bulletin board in the Student Union Building (SUB) with hiring flyers.
[Photo of the bulletin board in the Student Union Building (SUB) with several hiring posters]
Photo by Claire Keener | The Arbiter

Other departments were unable to offer remote work, leaving students to find work elsewhere.

“We were not allowed to work when campus was shut down and I couldn’t just sit around on my thumbs waiting for campus to reopen when I had rent to pay, so I quit,” Hayden Smart wrote in an email.

Smart is a writing, rhetoric, and technical communication major in his third year at Boise State. Throughout his time as a student employee, Smart has worked across several departments on campus including housing, janitorial, the Writing Center, and the BroncoShop.

“I want to work on campus—it’s easier to work on campus because of how flexible it is and it’s much easier to work on campus instead of having to drive elsewhere,” Smart said. “Students have realized the university can’t keep employees for a plethora of reasons, so they’ve started looking elsewhere.”

Nick van Santen is the associate director of experiential learning for Boise State Career Services. According to Santen, a likely cause for the shortage in student employees is an increase in early career opportunities.

“My overall sense right now is that there’s a lot of work opportunity right now,” Santen said. “There’s also a choice of where they want to spend their time and what they want to do.”

With paid internships and increased job openings, many students are taking advantage of positions related to their field of study, often prioritizing the type of work over a higher salary.

For some, however, a higher salary remains a priority.

“I think there are a few things causing this employment crisis, the first and most obvious reason being the pay; eight dollars an hour is not enough money,” Smart said. “Some departments seem to be trying to remedy this, but on the whole, most departments are still paying in the single digits per hour.”

While the university has been working to increase salaries for student employees, many of the departments are still outdone by competitors.

“Obviously we’ve seen some pretty big hourly rates for McDonald’s and Starbucks and things like that so those are hard to compete with considering our budget within the university,” Dhoore said. 

Part of the university’s effort to fill student work positions during 2021 included bumping starting wages on Handshake, the university’s recruitment platform.

“We did do an investigation of our salary rates across the board, and we did do a small increase for the entire workforce,” Dhoore said. “That doesn’t seem to have made any difference.”

Both Dhoore and Santen agree that while raising student wages would benefit student employees, factors such as student preference for remote work positions and external competition are larger driving forces for the labor shortage.

“Even if we paid more, I don’t think it would solve the problem … It would certainly be a good thing, but I actually don’t think it gets to the fundamental shift that we’re seeing on the nature of work in general,” Santen said.

As Boise State continues to offer more in-person classes, student positions are now becoming less remote. However, the help desk is currently working with human resources and the Career Center towards providing its student employees with flexibility in terms of working remotely.

“That’s essentially really the only thing that we’ve been getting in this new 2021 is, ‘why can’t I work from home?’” Dhoore said. “The answer from a technical standpoint is ‘I don’t know why you can’t work at home.’”

New hiring ads that more accurately reflect current work conditions, expectations and salaries are currently being shared with students both online and in-person, with career services even passing out candy to students in the Quad during late October.

“The university knows about [the labor shortage] and is trying to think of creative ways to incentivize students to work on campus,” Santen said. 

Santen hopes that these university efforts will incentivize more students to apply to on-campus work positions, which in turn would promote student engagement.

“Students who engage with their institutions of higher education tend to get better grades, they tend to graduate more on time, they tend to be more satisfied with their college experience because they’re engaged with it,” Santen said.

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