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Six steps to summer student success and a sustainable labour force for the future

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At a recent human resources forum, senior managers and HR directors alike agreed that the main challenge facing organizations in the future will be finding and keeping skilled labour. I’d like to suggest that your organization can start the process of recruiting future employees by providing a positive and successful experience to summer students. Below, I outline six steps on how to do this.

  1. The recruitment process for summer students starts with a clear job description. Sometimes organizations, especially smaller ones, will bypass this step and just have the summer student fill in gaps wherever needed. While this might be attractive to students looking for any job and some cash for the summer, it won’t help you to attract top candidates. A job description for summer students has two key purposes. One is in the recruitment function. It creates a clear and compelling picture of your organization and what role the summer student will be expected fill. A job description with general tasks and responsibilities is great, but even better is to include a special assignment that the student can work on during their own time or during time when there is no senior staff to direct their activity. It will give them a sense of purpose and will result in a tangible project that the student can contribute to your organization and add to their own résumé. Two, the job description will act as a guide for the student. A common problem with employing a summer student arises when the supervisory staff that they are assigned to go on vacation or are too busy with the organization’s operational demands to directly supervise the student. Having a clear job description with a list of tasks and responsibilities will guide the student’s work in the absence of direct supervision.  You may find yourself surprised by what a motivated summer student can achieve, given the right combination of direction and freedom.
  2. What if you don’t have the money to hire a summer student? The war for talent will hit not-for-profit organizations the hardest in the future. However given the current lack of economic opportunity for students at this time in Canada, and especially in Southern Ontario/GTA area, organizations have the unique opportunity to connect and engage with talented young people who are desperate for any opportunity to gain work experience. The Canada Summer Jobs Program (organizations need to apply in February) subsidizes employers who provide jobs for students. As a human resources professional, I’m not 100 percent happy with unpaid internships, except in the case of not-for-profit or cash-strapped organizations, but there are MANY students who will take an unpaid internship just for the value the experience adds to their résumé. However, you have to be very careful to ensure that you are providing the intern with training and a real benefit, not just getting “free work.” Organizations have been sued under labour laws for illegal internships.
  3. Don’t skip the orientation program! Just because your new employee or intern is a student who is only around for the summer, it doesn’t mean you should skip the orientation. In fact, the orientation is key to helping the student understand your organization, discover future career paths with your organization and engage and connect to your company vision and values. Successful orientations usually include both a technology piece, a quiz (to show how important the orientation is), relevant policies and procedures and most importantly some time on the floor or in different departments with a few different people to get the big picture of the company before they settle into their role with their immediate supervisor. A little bit of at work fun such as a scavenger hunt or a contest between several summer students can liven up the place for your regular workers and speed up the integration of your students to the team.
  4. A strong focus on health and safety demonstrates that your organization cares for its employees. And for young workers, it is the law. The Ministry of Labour loves to do health and safety blitzes regarding summer student health and safety. These students are often very young and this may be their first work experience. It is your job to keep them safe.
  5. Performance evaluations are highly valued by summer students. While your regular employees may or may not look forward to their annual performance appraisals, these students are used to getting feedback about their performance on a regular basis. If no feedback is given to them, they will interpret this negatively and it will cause them to feel disconnected from your organization. Yes, they are just the summer student, but sending them away at the end of the summer with more than just a paycheque can pay off for your organization in a big way. The performance evaluation engages them at a level that is more than monetary and can help make them ambassadors for your organizational brand. Just as the very best performance management conversations with your regular employees includes a strong focus on career development, this performance conversation with the student can also show them how they may be able to fit into your organization in the future. The performance evaluation is highly valued by students because as a first or new work experience, they really don’t know how they measure up against regular employees.  Finally, they appreciate the evaluation because it can become part of their portfolio when looking for future work experience.
  6. When the summer is over, don’t forget about your summer students! Have the student’s supervisor or the human resources coordinator stay in touch with the student. You can continue to send them your internal email or newsletter or you can invite them to organizational events or fundraising activities. A little bit of extra work to stay in touch will give you access to your best summer students when the war for talent begins. If top students are being given competing job offers, having a prior relationship with them will give your organization an edge. If you are able to hire the same student a few summers in a row, it also saves your organization valuable time and money in recruitment, training and orientation.

Hopefully these six steps to creating a successful experience for your summer students will translate to sustainable labour practices for the future of your organization. While currently there seems to be an unlimited supply of underemployed youth, the skills shortage is on the horizon in Canada. Encouraging some of the students to invest in the skills, technology, knowledge and training your organization needs will pay off for the future. Short-sighted employers take advantage of cheap student labour with no investment and sometimes no pay. Superior organizations will succeed in the future because of their ability to sustain a labour relationship with the best and the brightest future graduates.

Marcia Scheffler, M.A., CHRP Candidate
Human Resources Generalist

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Marcia Scheffler

Human Resources Generalist at Wawel Villa
Marcia Scheffler, M.A., CHRP Candidate is a Human Resources Generalist with M.A. working full-time as a Senior HR Officer. She is interested in the intersection of human resources theory and current best practices in HR. Read more
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