New Supervisor for Student Workers

With shortages of professional and para-professional staff, student workers have become a mainstay in academic libraries. With this unique group of library workers comes unique managerial challenges. Whereas previous generations of student workers desired to work to gain experience for future careers, today’s student workers are more likely to feel entitled. What can and should be done? In the past, I indirectly supervised student workers through their immediate supervisor. I thought I would know how to supervise student workers, but soon discovered I did not. This indirect supervision does not really train or assist in understanding how to work with this diverse group of individuals.

My current position entails direct supervision of student workers. However, I was not as prepared as I thought so I have had to learn how to supervise student workers. I began my supervision of student workers by giving them daily shift duties. They were not accustomed to hands-on, physical work and balked at the idea of actually shelving books, shelf reading and performing an hourly walk through the building to pick up items left on carts and tables, etc. The student workers had come to believe their job was to sit at the public service desk and do homework while waiting for guests to come for assistance. I had heard about this type of attitude from previous supervisors of student workers, but thought it was a lack of leadership/direction. I was surprised to discover that my millennial students didn’t have the work ethic of past generations. They were just as surprised at my expectations of them.

After the initial shock experienced by both sides, I re-evaluated my management tactics. The leadership books I read and courses on leadership did not prepare me to work adequately with this generation of student workers. I began reading material about working with student workers in academic libraries. I found the Complete Guide for Supervisors of Student Employees in Today’s Academic Libraries (2007) to be extremely beneficial. I am now reading it for the second time and continue to find information I did not glean in the previous reading. The book provides advice on topics including communication, hiring, training, motivating, getting feedback and understanding federal work study programs.

I first strove to improve my communication skills. “Communicating with student employees requires a great deal of skill informed by a set of strategies focused on encouraging compassion, understanding, efficiency and feedback.”1 Previous methods of communicating with other library faculty and staff did not seem to work with student workers. So, I adjusted, by asking the student workers the best method to communicate with them. Some suggested texting, sending an email message and others suggested some new ideas, such as creating a wiki, blog, RSS feed, etc. To to keep personal and professional life separate, I decided not to use Facebook. The methods of communication are important because the message needs to be received and understood. The supervisor must be proactive in obtaining feedback from student workers. Giving feedback to supervisors is usually new to the student worker, therefore, the supervisor will have to encourage and solicit feedback. I discovered that obtaining feedback from student workers takes a variety of, and sometimes multiple, approaches like email, texting, leaving memos requiring signature in their work area, etc. The approach that works well for one group of student workers may not work for another group. Constant adaptation must be considered when working with student workers.

Another area needing improvement was training.The training given to student workers must be taken seriously. Training sets the tone for the work environment for the student worker; a poorly trained student worker will not be able to transition smoothly into the library environment. Training should be kept minimal and simple. Supervisors need to remember that the priority of student worker is school; therefore, they will not put a lot of time and attention into learning a job function. Student workers will complete the job duty as they understand – just to get it done. The job skills and work ethics learned in the library can be transferrable to their current school work and future employment. Some of these transferable skills are “punctuality, performance expectations, breaks and holidays.”2

Finally, I discovered I needed assistance to motivate student employees. Student workers are not in this job as their career; therefore, they are not motivated by raises, promotions or performance awards. Instead, I learned to motivate the students intrinsically by setting the standard for their work performances. “Only then with faith and trust in a student’s work, can a supervisor motivate students to raise their level of performance.”3 Motivation begins with training. The student workers I have are good employees; they just lacked sufficient training and motivation. I discovered, if I modeled the appropriate work behavior and raised the student’s understanding of satisfactory work it helped. However, I also had to learn to trust them to the job they were assigned and observe them without being intrusive. I gave them goals to achieve that were easily obtainable. I provided feedback to the student workers while they were achieving their goals. I corrected inappropriate behaviors and praised appropriate behaviors. I also performed some of the same goals/job duties I asked them to complete to demonstrate what I wanted, as well as, the quality of work needed. I continued to stress quality, not quantity, in their work performance.

What I have accomplished with the students has been through trial and error in regards to various issues, such as communicating, training, motivating, supervising, etc. I have a lot to learn as every group of student workers creates new dynamics and learning situations. I look forward to continue my journey in working with student workers.

Works Cited

1. Schaub, Elizabeth. 2008. “Communicating with Student Employees,” Visual Resource Association Bulletin, 35, no. 1:20-21.

2. Baird, Lynn N. 2003. “Student Employees in Academic Libraries: Training for Work, Educating for Life,” PNLA Quarterly, 67, no. 2:13 & 23.

3. Constantinon, Constantia and Helen Arrignoi. 1998. “Recruiting, Training & Motivating Student Assistants in Academic Libraries,” The Catholic Library World, 69, no. 2:20-23.

Baldwin, David A. & Daniel C. Barkley. 2007. Complete Guide for Supervisors of Student Employees in Today’s Academic Libraries. Libraries Unlimited. Westport CT.