Op-eds, Opinions

Bosis ’19: The agency problem in student employment

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

There has been some serious blowback, to say the least, around Brown Dining Services stemming from the extreme overworking of students in supervising and management positions. The problems are myriad: fewer new hires means more work for the rest, existing employees often put off leaving out of fear of hurting their friends still working for BuDS and the organization has no formal structure that guarantees consideration of student policy proposals — the list goes on. But the problem is not simply that pay isn’t high enough to attract more workers, or that overworked students must question whether they are really “students first.” Employers hiring recent graduates frequently look for students with experience in a setting where their decisions directly affect the future of the organization. After all, the overwhelming majority of sample resumes on CareerLAB’s website highlight relevant leadership experiences that can translate into interview and job offers. Few on-campus jobs provide that kind of experience , and as a result, time spent working is time that can’t be spent in a meaningful leadership position. That disadvantage can seriously reduce the qualifications of even the hardest-working students as they seek employment after graduation.

There are certainly valuable skills to be gained from any job on campus, whether it’s serving food, phone banking for alumni donations or manning the welcome desk. But as it stands, these skills are more difficult to translate to a resume than those gained in non-paying, extracurricular organizations. The truth is that anyone not worried about needing money for the immediate continuation of their education has the luxury of pursuing jobs or clubs that look more impressive on their resume, while less privileged students take jobs that pay relatively well but don’t exactly stand out to potential employers.

It’s true that student employment is both an accepted form of financial assistance from the University and a valid mode of engagement on campus. But in order for schools like Brown to really offer the same experience to all their students, they must consider how working 20 or more hours a week affects students’ on-paper qualifications. That’s not to mention that dissatisfaction in student employment, like what has been voiced at BuDS, can largely be attributed to the lack of agency and decision-making power. Feeling helpless and even burdened by an employer can significantly damage student wellness over the course of a semester and strip students of the same feelings of empowerment and content that other leadership roles provide and that the University at large works very hard to promote.

Some on-campus groups are attempting to tackle this issue in their own ways. For example, I recently learned that The Herald itself is able to provide financial assistance for those who need it, enabling students who would otherwise have to spend their time working an on-campus job to gain leadership experience instead. Of course, since almost no student groups have the same funding network as The Herald, the feasibility of implementing this option more widely is limited. The Computer Science Teaching Assistant program, on the other hand, is one student employer that recognizes the importance of providing the opportunity for autonomy to its members. Not only do TAs, in my personal experience, report more job satisfaction than average student workers, but the skills involved in organizing assignments — even redesigning the introductory sequence of the department — demonstrate much more depth of thought and initiative than those needed for holding disciplinary meetings with BuDS workers who show up late.

Brown, as the fourth-largest private employer in the state of Rhode Island, has a definite ability to influence the structure of BuDS and other student employment. One potential test case is Georgetown University, whose equivalent dining organization has student positions at every level of management. By handing over decisions for some of the dining halls on everything from hiring and hours to purchasing and writing policy, the school effectively empowers students who need the work to move up the ladder just as their counterparts in extracurricular groups so often do.

BuDS may be working to improve the day-to-day working conditions and compensation for the students who keep our dining halls open, but without a significantly more student-centric model of leadership, none of these fundamental issues will be fixed. It is, of course, well within the rights of Dining Services as a organization to dictate its employment structure, but it is the responsibility of a socially conscious university to take steps beyond the bare minimum to empower its students and safeguard their well-being. If anything, building a workplace of employees invested in the organization may ultimately benefit employers and employees alike.

Benjamin Bosis ’19 is a former BuDS supervisor and can be reached at benjamin_bosis@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com