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'It's a lot of hard work': the experiences of student-workers in university term-time employment.


In a recent article in this journal, Robbins (2010) pointed out the importance of understanding the 'hard labour' of university students who have part-time jobs during term time. He did this, however, without invoking the testimony of the student-workers themselves in their dual role as university students and part-time workers. He focused instead on data mainly from quantitative surveys, including his own, of student-workers at a regional university. While Robbins provides an informative and up-to-date account of what he rightly calls 'a challenging time to be a university student', his article does not offer any real insight into the way these challenges are experienced by the young workers whose voices are absent in his paper. This article seeks, in part, to fill this gap by featuring the testimonies of a sample of student-workers at a regional campus in Australia. The stories reveal a range of strategies which students use to resolve the dilemmas posed by the work-study couplet.


My interest in the education-work nexus was prompted in the late 1970s when I asked a Year 11 and Year 12 class at a Canberra secondary college why two-thirds of them had not done some homework which was due on that particular Monday morning. Their response surprised me: of the two dozen students in that class, 16 said they had been working in their part-time jobs for much of the weekend and therefore were unable to complete the assignment. In the next few days I discussed this revelation with colleagues who, like me, had no idea why so many academically able students were failing to complete their assignments on time. Some months later I conducted a college-wide survey to investigate the extent of the 'student-worker' phenomenon and the view of the teaching staff of it. The completed questionnaires revealed a number of facts that led me to conclude that the student-worker was surely a new phenomenon; close to two-thirds of the 470 students who completed the survey had part-time jobs. The comments from their teachers also indicated that it was an issue of interest to them, as most were less enthusiastic about students working part-time on weekends and nights than they were about school-sponsored, timetabled work-experience placements.

In the late 1970s there appeared to be only one empirical study, a short essay by Douse (1975), on what was then a nascent issue of little or no interest to educators. Ashenden (1990) appears to have had a similar experience in writing his monograph The Student-Workers, in which his bibliography of about 100 references contains only a single reference from the 1970s, with the remainder covering the 1980s. Since then, there has been a substantial increase in the number of official reports and academic studies on the school-to-work transition and the dual role of many young people as school students and part-time workers. (1)

As a follow up to the initial surveys in the late 1970s, a study in the late 1980s of the 'student-worker' phenomenon in Australia and abroad concluded that the heavy engagement of school students in the teenage labour market could be explained by the collapse of the school-to-work transition, a problem which potentially had serious consequences for the life chances of young people in Australia and elsewhere (Munro 1989). Interviews with students in the late 1980s revealed a number of anxieties experienced by young people employed in mainly dead-end, low-paid 'adolescent jobs' in the secondary labour market (Greenberger and Steinberg 1986). These anxieties centred on issues of self-esteem and stigma, conflict and--most importantly--the thought of being trapped permanently in low-quality odd jobs after high school graduation.

In 2002 I conducted further surveys and interviews with senior high school students in the ACT, Melbourne and rural Victoria, and noticed how the attitudes of students to their part-time employment had changed over the past three decades. Although the jobs available to student-workers remained much the same, the students themselves no longer feared the prospect of being trapped in underemployment to the same extent as was felt by the 1980s generation. They were not troubled by working in what the 1980s cohort often perceived as stigmatised, demeaning work. A fairly typical comment, albeit not put so bluntly, was Harry's assessment of his job in a Canberra laundromat in 1981: 'It's a shithouse job. I just don't like the conditions or the type of work'. A more arresting moment in an interview occurred when a very pleasant Year 12 student appeared to have been a victim of what Sennett and Cobb (1977) termed 'the hidden injuries of class': 'I'm doing something useful--doesn't bother me if I'm just low life'. Roberta worked at a fruit market in 1981 and no doubt felt that the posh customers looked down on her, a reaction that was in stark contrast to the egalitarian ethos at her college where students were treated as adults and were on first-name terms with their teachers. Here we see an interesting reversal of the view that Year 11 and 12 students are treated as children in traditional high schools and as adults at work.

In the opening decade of the new century, university colleagues were experiencing the kind of disquiet about the student-worker phenomenon felt by secondary teachers in the 1980s; the lecturing staff witnessed the gradual disappearance of the authentic full-time student on university campuses. At my own university in rural Victoria, academics had become aware that many students were not buying textbooks, nor were they attending classes regularly or putting in enough hours to complete their courses satisfactorily. In comparison, until quite recently at least, there has been a paucity of qualitative research relating to university students and their term-time employment, which the present article seeks at least in part to correct. To this end, I conducted a survey (148 participants) in a representative sample of faculties and about 30 interviews with students who volunteered to participate in the project; profiles of the students and their experiences are featured in the last section of this article. These student-workers were employed in the same kind of low-skilled jobs at the unglamorous end of the service sector as their school counterparts, but they were less critical of their McJobs, the term coined by Etzioni (1986) to describe 'fast-food factories' such as McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Subway and other franchises. The current cohort of university students saw their McJobs--which included food outlets, as well as bakeries, catering firms, shopping centres and the like--as a source of much-needed income and in some cases, at least, as a valuable learning experience.

Even so, the experience of American students should serve as a warning to any uncritical endorsement of the student-worker in the so-called 'school-to-work revolution' (Olson 1998). Of the case of the United States, where there is a long tradition of students working to support their university studies, Roksa and Valez (2010, p. 7) note how both Year 12 students in high school (60 per cent) and university undergraduates (80 per cent) combine going to school or university with paid part-time work. They suggest that it is important to include the earlier employment experiences of school students when evaluating the impact of working while studying at university level, since the early exposure of 20 hours or more per week has consequences for a student's future educational attainment. The US statistics are dramatic: almost half of those who completed high school worked 20 hours or more per week, and of these 41 per cent did not go on to higher education compared to 28 per cent who had only a moderate level of participation in the labour market (Roksa and Velez 2010, p. 7).

Literature Review: Risking Learning for Earning

Recent studies have used the testimonies of senior secondary students and university undergraduates to explore the experiences of young people who are now part of a growing cohort of student-workers. Typically, most high school students who hold down a part-time job do so in after-school hours; university students, on the other hand, do so during term-time as well as on weekends and week nights. My own research has shown that many school students continue in the same part-time jobs when they go on to university and therefore the conditions under which they work do not change in any significant way. Recent studies which focus on both the learning and earning dimensions of student life are outlined in the two subsections of the review below. The first subsection outlines some of the key problems identified by researchers in the study-work relationship, while the second features three ethnographic case studies on student employment in both conventional and unconventional jobs in the service sector. These ethnographies serve as an introduction to the experiences of student-workers featured in this article.

Balancing Study and Work: The Risks of Working and Not Working

An article on the recent emergence of 'the new student' in UK universities is relevant to the present study, particularly in the light of the Australian government's plan to increase the numbers of university students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds. In their article, Leathwood and O'Connell (2003) include the testimonies of non-traditional students who are likely to form the bulk of the student-worker population in the foreseeable future. Their paper, which includes 'It's a Struggle' in its title, is another way of describing the hard labour identified in the article by Robbins (2010) which discussed in the present article.

The focus in this section is on recent literature from Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, the countries where the student-worker phenomenon is most prominent. The literature's main themes are (i) the increasing numbers of student-workers at tertiary level; (ii) the negative impact of excessive work participation during term time on student educational attainment; and (iii) how the quality of university education and the university experience more generally are affected by students' term-time employment. Riggert et al. (2006) note how the ever-rising number of student-workers has been variously interpreted in a positive, negative and neutral light; the consensus in the literature, and supported in their study, is that only very high levels of term-time employment--greater than 20 hours a week--impact negatively on academic performance. Furthermore, they point out, student term-time employment affects retention in higher education even more than their grade point average does, with students who work 15 hours or less having a higher retention rate than non-workers. In an Australian study by Vickers, Lamb and Hinkley (2003, p. 30), the authors concluded that students who spent 20 to 29 hours a week at work were 160 per cent more likely to discontinue their studies than non-workers were.

Not surprisingly, Vickers, Lamb and Hinkley (2003) found that the drop-out rate for Australian tertiary students varied according to the faculty's required number of contact hours and the extent of employment participation. Thus in Medicine and Agriculture--where weekly class contact hours are 25 and 21 hours respectively-no student dropped out; conversely, the drop-out rate was highest when required class contact hours were low and employment hours were high.

The Institute for Quality of Daily Life Survey (2010) of 2000 full-time undergraduates in the United Kingdom found that in the last six years there has been a large increase in the number of students who were concerned about finding a sustainable balance in their university, working and social lives. The number of students worried about managing their academic workload more than doubled from 30 per cent in 2004 to 62 per cent in 2010. The relevance of this to the present paper is that the problem of achieving a balanced life was greater for student-workers (75 per cent) than for non-workers (62 per cent).

While this is undoubtedly true for most students who combine work and study, one university researcher has documented the problems experienced by nonworking students. Curtis (2007) found that those students who had never worked during their university days reported higher levels of stress, less motivation, more tiredness in lectures, more missed and late arrivals at lectures and greater difficulty in spending adequate time on their studies than did students who had worked during term time. The non-workers also scored lower than the student-workers on how they felt that work contributed to a number of factors such as improvements in interpersonal and management skills, confidence and social life. In both the United Kingdom and Australia, it is clear that university students--whether engaged in term-time employment or not--struggle to make ends meet by juggling part-time employment with their academic commitments. The problem in both countries is the lack of adequate government financial support to students (see Richardson, Evans and Gbadamosi 2009). Increasing numbers of financially impoverished students are therefore compelled to live at home and to work up to 20 hours per week to finance their daily living expenses. Some of the ways students confront these challenges are indicated in the following case studies and in the ethnography in the last section of the article.

Case Studies of University Students Engaged in Term-time Employment

In this section of the literature review, a sample of three recent and noteworthy studies on the experiences of student-workers in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom is discussed. Two of these ethnographies represent the extreme ends of the service sector in which a minority of students, albeit an increasing number of them, are employed--in 'a cool coffee shop' and the sex industry, the sunny and shady sides of the sector respectively. These service industry workplaces reveal the intrinsic (for example, fun and friendship) and extrinsic (for example, money) meanings that the students attach to their work. The third case study focuses on the workplaces where the vast majority of students are employed, that is, in between these two extremes in retail and catering establishments.

The first case study deals with the question of McJobs as either exploitation or fun, and it focuses on 40 college students in suburban America. In this paper, Besen (2006) provides an ethnography of the working experiences of young people in a number of up-market coffee shops; their testimonies refute the claims of those who argue that 'adolescent jobs' (Greenberger and Steinberg 1986) are dead-end, demeaning and exploitative. Besen explains why the predominantly white and affluent students enjoy their work in the laid-back atmosphere of 'the cool coffee shop', where fun and friendship are the order of the day; the students were observed at work and they clearly took pride in making a good coffee. Besen's interviews and participant-observation research strategies reveal how student-workers are able to construct a sense of job satisfaction when given the opportunity to work in a friendly and valued service-sector workplace. Her study therefore offers a counter case to the predominantly critical accounts of the demands of 'emotional labour' (Hochschild 1983)in 'the personality market' (Mills 1973), which tend to characterise these low-paid service-sector McJobs.

At the shady end of the service sector, the second ethnography of student-workers tells the story of university students working in the Melbourne sex industry. Based on her doctoral dissertation, Lantz (2005) predicts that this kind of nonstandard student employment will eventually become normalised as legitimate work for students in an era of high-cost tertiary education. Lantz interviewed 40 young women who stated that the sex-industry work paid for their education and, in some cases, for their children's. Lantz suggests these sex workers could be seen as success stories in a neo-liberal age which extols the idea of 'the entrepreneurial self'; the women see their work as 'pragmatic, contingent and short-term' (2005, p. 398)--a notion which Lantz regards as wishful thinking, since some of the students continued in the industry well after they graduated. It is also likely, as Lantz predicts, that some female graduates will choose to work in escort agencies, strip joints and the like, if their earnings exceed what they could command in more conventional work.

An innovative study by McKechnie et al. (2010) captures the typical part-time work experience of students by focusing on what student-workers actually do in their jobs. The researchers asked a small number of high-school students from a school in Scotland to record their work activities at particular times during the day on a mobile phone provided by the researchers. When an alarm sounded, the student-workers were asked to record their current tasks; the researchers later tabulated the findings and discussed them in follow-up interviews. Space does not allow for a detailed account of the findings, except to say that there were many varied activities performed by the students within the two main workplaces, retail and catering, and that these activities were valued by the students for the skills they acquired while doing quite mundane tasks; the present study confirms this assessment.

An Ethnography of Students at Work

My research is in the tradition of the aforementioned ethnographies. Bessant (2007, p. 32) succinctly states why qualitative data are especially important in research of this kind: 'While researchers have observed a pattern of reduced attachment and commitment to university life and study on the part of students working long hours in paid employment, the question, which ethnography can help us answer, still remains: how do the students themselves "make sense" of this experience?'. Bessant advocates 'the value of listening to young people talk about their experiences of studying and living without sufficient means'. She explains that the value of qualitative, interpretivist research is not simply that it values the voices of the subjects, ethically important as that may be, but that ethnographic material has value in itself as 'knowledge-making material' (Bessant 2007, p. 25).

While I am reluctant to make such a claim about what follows, I believe that the material offers an important insight--usually missing in quantitative studies--into the lives of student-workers. At the outset of the study, students were asked to indicate in a questionnaire whether they would agree to an interview about their work and study experiences. Of approximately 50 students who were willing to participate, 30 were selected on the basis of their courses and faculties. One of the problems posed in selecting a representative sample was that some students were difficult to contact and several who were contacted were unable to find the time to participate in an interview. Nonetheless, those who were interviewed were invariably enthusiastic and forthcoming about the topics discussed. Questions were grouped around the three themes of students as scholars, workers and citizens. The interviews covered six broad topics which were seen as among the most likely ones about which university students would be willing and able to speak confidently:

* personal and family background;

* high school academic and extracurricular experiences;

* university-sponsored work placements and student-initiated paid term-time employment;

* university life in general;

* future career aspirations and expectations; and

* ideas on social issues such as unionism and citizenship.

Sylvia's 'Hard Work'

Sylvia's story is told in some detail in order to illustrate the kinds of responses students in the study gave on the above topics. Because of space limitations, the experiences of the student-workers discussed in the rest of the paper are confined mainly to their term-time employment. Sylvia's reflections on the roles of scholar, worker and citizen will, I hope, provide some idea of the lives of her peers in a regional university which, like many other university campuses, is coming to terms with the increasing number of their 'customers' who no longer think of themselves as full-time students, but rather see themselves as part-time students who work or as part-time workers who study when they can.

The epigraph in the title of this article--'It's a lot of hard work'--was Sylvia's low-key way of describing her experience of working while studying both at high school and at university where she was enrolled as a full-time Arts (Journalism) student at a regional campus close to her home. Sylvia explained that her interest in journalism could be traced to a work-experience placement when she was a Year 9 pupil at a local state school. In Year 10 her work-experience placements were uninspiring. 'All I did for a week was to fold men's jeans. It was boring.' When asked if she learned anything, her response was 'never to get a job in the retail sector'. Like many students working in the service sector, she complained about 'the extreme boredom' of the work. Another work-experience placement was more productive, as she got to do some administrative work and to learn 'how to behave in an office, how they speak and things you don't do (laughing)'.

Compared to these school-sponsored work placements, she rated her part-time job at McDonald's as much more interesting. 'Everyone's friendly and mostly you have to be really focused on your job, actually to get it done ... You feel part of the group rather than standing out as an individual and it's almost like a little outing when you go there. It's good that way.' Like most students who work at McDonald's she had to deal with inconvenient shifts and the threat of dismissal for non-compliance, but was nonetheless upbeat about the experience. Other students in the present study who worked at 'Maccas'--and in the service sector more generally--had both good and bad stories to relate.

Sylvia's earning and learning experiences before and after graduation are both typical and atypical of the students discussed in this article. Space limitations preclude a detailed discussion of these differences and similarities; suffice it to say that Sylvia's experiences in earning money as a working student were similar to those of most of her peers, who, like her, made a virtue of necessity in coping with their part-time jobs during term time; for example, although she enjoyed her time at McDonald's, Sylvia felt she had been exploited by the fast-food chain where the routines of McWorld identified by Ritzer (1993)--efficiency, control, calculability and predictability--kept the young workers 'hopping in Hamburger Heaven', an apt phrase coined by Franklin (1975). Her peers working in the service sector had their own 'atrocity stories', but like Sylvia they spoke about the satisfaction they got from 'surviving' in 'the real world'; a number of them, including Sylvia, commented on the pace of work at McDonald's as a positive feature of the job.

Sylvia's learning career as a student-worker, however, is in several ways not typical of the learning experiences of her peers at university. In brief, her BA (Journalism) offered experiences which would not normally be available to students in other disciplines; an example of such an experience was what she described as the highlight of her studies--a study tour to New York, where her class visited various media outlets and met journalism students at Columbia University. Other highlights for Sylvia were her graduation in 2006, a year of overseas travel and work as a journalist on two regional newspapers.

Other students in the present study also experienced the ups and downs of casual work, and it is to their testimonies that we now turn. Only the comments of a small sample of student-workers (five females and three males) about their term-time employment experiences are included. The students featured below were all in their early 20s, having come to university after finishing Year 12 with grades ranging from modest to very high, and at the time of the interview they were living in rural Victoria. University-industry partnerships in which students are offered paid internships in an industry relevant to their field of study had not been taken up by most of the students in the sample and are therefore not discussed in this paper. (2) Students were more likely to be involved in unpaid primary and secondary school placements as student teachers in training; one such case is included below.

Management and Survival Skills: Managing People, Time, Money and Emotions

Among the most attractive features of their working lives reported by the student-workers were positive feelings associated with doing hard physical labour, successfully performing intellectually challenging and (or) emotionally challenging work, and having some autonomy and responsibility in 'the real world'--a phrase used frequently by interviewees, apparently as a contrast to their academic lives at school and university. Thus, while most students valued their part-time jobs for more than the money they earned, there were also frequent references in the interviews to having to 'survive' in this real world where bills had to be paid and textbooks and so on bought. In other words, most would acknowledge the observation Robbins (2010) that it's 'a challenging time to be a university student'.

The Hard Labour of Alison, Chris and Larry

Alison was a science student who has since taken up a rewarding job for which she is qualified and that she feels she deserves after a long stint as a student-worker. She explained that she had been working part-time since she was 14. Like virtually all tertiary students she had financial difficulties paying her way through three years of full-time study for a science degree. 'If l didn't have two or three jobs I couldn't have done it. I mean, if I had a bill and couldn't pay Mum and Dad would help, but I didn't want them to pay for stuff. I worked and managed I suppose, but there were a lot of times you just didn't have any money. You know, how am I to get to uni? I've got no petrol in the car, that sort of thing.... For a bit there, I had five jobs, for about 25 hours a week on average.' She believed these part-time jobs did not adversely affect her studies although she admitted to having often missed lectures when the opportunity to make money came up. Alison is a good example of a student-worker who--having survived the grind of long hours of study and work--feels a sense of pride that could perhaps be interpreted as a post hoc rationalisation; most people, it seems, like to put the best gloss possible on difficulties they have overcome in the past.

Chris, a young man in his mid-twenties, was not in this category. He was atypical as a student-worker because of his self-designated role as a breadwinner. To make ends meet he worked 20 hours a week in a factory, which he found very difficult on top of his studies. 'I had to do that amount of work in order to keep my mind at peace, in order to do what I was doing, because without work, there's no way I could have done uni.' By this he meant that as a married man he needed to support a growing family and would not have been able to study unless he was fulfilling his obligations to his family. In contrast to Alison, his work and study commitments were experienced as an assault on his well-being.

Another student-worker who felt the burden of responsibility was Larry, whose strong work ethic and relative youth put him at odds with some of his older subordinates. Larry explained how he worked 15 to 20 hours a week in a supermarket where he supervised about 15 people, most of whom were either older or younger than he. He admitted that 'they don't really like me 'cause I'm pretty hard on them, but I don't care. I'm there to work.., they don't really go there to work, they're there to talk and socialise ... 'We see here the challenge that sometimes confronts (young) supervisors with a strong work ethic not shared by their subordinates. We see too that Larry's sense of duty to his employer is doubly exploited, first by the threat of less work if he joined a union and, second, by his need to work overtime in inconvenient shifts for no extra money. The employers, he explained, 'don't want people joining the union and they've recommended if we join the union, we are risking getting our hours cut'. Larry did not join the union despite complaining that he was underpaid and overworked. 'A couple of times I've had to work all night, 16-hour shifts sometimes, no one else works that much; it's a long day, and I don't get paid any extra, just the hours. You're meant to get paid more if you work over the 12 hours ... that didn't happen.' Unscrupulous employers know, as do their casual workers, that any unfair treatment of student-workers will rarely be challenged and, if it is, they will simply find a more compliant employee.

The Emotional Labour of Nicole and Jack

Nicole secured a part-time job after her work experience placements in a Year 10 class at a school and in a law firm. The law firm offered her a job where she did 'bits and pieces' for about two days a week. She explained how difficult it was to fit this around her teaching placement as a primary school student teacher. She found both the paid part-time job and her unpaid teaching placement emotionally demanding, but in different ways. The office politics at the law firm were not to her liking. 'You're at a law firm so you are often getting people at their worst.' Teaching, she explained, is also 'emotionally taxing and I think teaching forces me to look at myself and my abilities differently, so in that way--yes it's demanding in a different way'. The difference, she explained, was about the intrinsic rewards she derived from one job and not the other. 'When I'm at the primary school I feel that I'm there because I want to be there and it's a different kind of pressure ... I look forward to going to the primary school, but work ... well I have to do it, but because I'm getting paid I have to do ft.' Nicole said she'd happily volunteer at the primary school, but as much as she got on with her work colleagues at the law firm, she would not work there unless she was paid.

Early in her training she was unsure about being able to deal with 'many of the issues that kids have to deal with--issues from home', but later felt much more confident. 'At first it was difficult for me to consolidate what I was hearing at the university (about best practice) and then match that with the actual practice that I was seeing going on in schools ... you're hearing one thing from academics and another thing from the people who are actually involved in the profession.' The reality of the classroom, she explained, meant that 'best practice' is not possible, 'so you worry you are falling short because you are unable to follow through on what you've been taught is the best teaching practice'. Her private 'worry' was a commonly felt fear among student teachers of not being liked by their charges. 'Sometimes you walk into other classrooms and you can just feel the tension', by which she meant the emotional atmosphere that permeates a classroom of indifferent or disgruntled students. Nicole explained how she tried to prevent this kind of negative tension by adopting 'a more hands-on approach' that the kids would find more interesting.

Most student teachers have an 'atrocity story' to relate about their school placements; they are aware that truly bad experiences take their toll on a teacher's emotional well-being. While few if any such horror stories were reported by the student-workers in the interviews, they understood that early burn-out was a characteristic of the teaching profession. The most common emotion-draining experiences reported by the students, however, concerned dealing with bad bosses and unpleasant customers.

The need to manage one's emotions when dealing with difficult customers was mentioned by several students working part time in shops and restaurants. Jack, for example, worked for two years at McDonalds. 'Customers, they always blamed you if you didn't have the burgers or whatever, but it wasn't really your fault, 'cause I was serving the customers, I wasn't actually cooking the burgers. They got pretty angry about it sometimes. I learnt how to deal with people, that was a big one, using your incentive [sic].' Jack's job on the counter is not the norm at McDonald's, whose managers usually choose big-sisterly young girls for the customer-contact position. Traditionally, as one informant explained, 'boys do grill', well out of sight of the clientele (Munro 1992, p. 32).

The People Skills of Margie and Raelene

Developing 'people skills' is how some students described their means of coping in the workplace. Margie talked about her job at a supermarket where she worked 14 hours a week. 'It's taught me how to be more responsible ... like it's given me good people skills working with all the customers and that. The people I work with are really fun, like I work in the bakery, so there are like eight people and you get to know each other really well.' In Margie's case, the people skills were learned from both colleagues and customers; school students frequently claim they learn more about 'adult practices' (Wilson and Wyn 1987) in such jobs more than they do in their schools, where teachers are the only adults with whom they usually have much contact.

Raelene, a PhD student who grew up in a rural area said little about her high school part-time job, but was more forthcoming about her three years of term-time employment in a local restaurant while at university. 'The waitressing was really good because you've gotta work on your social skills and it really forces you to communicate with people you don't know, like people come in and you have to be able to engage with them.' She confessed that she found this quite difficult, but a good learning experience. As a doctoral student at university, she worked as a tutor for about three hours a week and found the job stimulating but decidedly daunting. 'It's kind of difficult being just out of honours and (going) into that role because you still feel you're a student.' Usually, this means the tutor is younger than many of the mature-age students attending the tutorials and therefore their academic credibility may be questioned. In Raelene's case, she explained that her confidence has grown and so too has her interest in becoming an academic. 'I want to hang out at uni. I love the environment here and I don't see how I'd want to leave.'

Raelene's enthusiasm for campus life is unfortunately not shared by the vast majority of undergraduates who typically are compelled to spend more time off campus than on it, to the extent that many do not identify themselves primarily as university students. Researchers in the field of higher education have diagnosed the increasing disengagement of students from scholarly and extracurricular activities as a consequence of the demands of having to engage in paid term-time employment. As Bessant reported from her research, student-workers 'talked of working so they could study, but they couldn't study because they had to work' (2007, p. 32). While the majority of student-workers in the present study were caught in this dilemma, the example of Tess was an exception.

Tess's Multiple Skills

The concept of time management cropped up repeatedly in the interviews. Students who claimed to have managed their study and work commitments successfully were rare, with most admitting that they had neglected their studies at least to some extent during the university term. Tess, whose mother is a sessional academic, had an interesting perspective on time management. 'I know there were a lot of people in my course who lived at home and didn't work at all, and it would be naive of me to think that they didn't have quite a lot of advantages in regard to time, but I also know how I work and ... working a lot made me utilise the time that I did have to do uni work effectively--I think I could have got better grades had I not worked as much and studied more, but I don't know if I'd have enjoyed it as much.' She said that she could not recall ever missing a class because of her job and could not recall ever getting an extension on an assignment. She believed that 'the busier you are the more you utilise the time you have'.

Tess believed she had acquired a range of skills in her various casual jobs including at a gym and in a policy consulting firm. 'My work at the gym was challenging in some ways--dealing with people treating me like an idiot, surprised I was doing a degree and not just some bimbo ... I learned a lot of people skills working at the gym, how to deal with all different sorts of people and how to remain happy and positive even when you've been standing there for hours. 'These comments are fairly typical of students employed in the secondary labour market, where they mention the acquisition of skills such as emotion management, people management, impression management, communication skills and interpersonal skills. Unlike most of her peers however, Tess had a more substantial learning experience in the primary labour market. 'At the public policy consulting firm it was a lot more intellectually challenging, and also socially, learning how to interact with clients and high-ranking people in the business world, and learning how to act in situations that I hadn't been in before ... I got a lot of job skills from the public policy firm, research skills, and professional social skills and how to treat people in different situations and also I learned about the way government bureaucracy works.'

The profiles of the female student-workers (Sylvia, Alison, Nicole, Margie, Raelene and Tess) and their male counterparts (Chris, Larry and Jack) reveal some stereotypical gendered attitudes--Tess as 'bimbo' and Larry as 'breadwinner'--but these are few and far between. Of much more significance are the age and status of both males and females who as young university students are dependent on their earnings from part-time work to finance their studies in the quest for a secure future. For many university students, there is a catch-22 in combining study and work--neatly summed up by Bessant's student-workers, who 'talked of working so they could study, but they couldn't study because they had to work' (2007, p. 32).


The paper has reviewed the recent literature in this field, commented on a number of relevant case studies here and abroad and added what is usually missing in such studies, namely the testimonies of the student-workers. These testimonies offer a glimpse of what students experience and learn in their term-time employment. Having interviewed dozens of high school, college and university students about their part-time work, I have found that university students do much the same work in the secondary labour market as their high-school counterparts and are generally more satisfied and grateful for what they learn and earn. The explanation for this is that university students see their McJobs as strictly temporary and are more certain of their futures than the younger school students are, many of whom are anxious and unsure about their post-school options. Nevertheless, if the trend of inadequate government spending on tertiary education continues, the traditional full-time university student will become an endangered species and the student-worker phenomenon will continue to affect the attrition rate and educational attainment of university students burdened with fees, living expenses and future debt.


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(1) For the most recent official report see the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training (HRSCET) (2009), on Adolescent Overload.

(2) See Reidy (2006) for a detailed analysis of students' experiences while on university sponsored work placements in Melbourne.

Lyle Munro, Monash University. The author thanks the two anonymous referees for their helpful advice.
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Title Annotation:Contributed Article
Author:Munro, Lyle
Publication:Australian Bulletin of Labour
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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