What student foodservice employees want from their employers

The National Association of College and University Food Services’ College Dining 2030 and Beyond report took a deep dive into what student employees look for from their employers. Here’s some key takeaways.
Student foodservice employee. | Illustration by Marty McCake

What’s important to student employees? Student workers make up a significant part of the labor pool for college and university foodservice. And thus, knowing how to attract and retain them may be a potential solution to the ongoing landscape of labor challenges facing the foodservice industry. In the National Association of College and University Food Services’ (NAFCUS) College Dining 2030 and Beyond report, the researchers identified labor as a key challenge for the industry moving forward. The researchers also pointed to technology, facilities, customer desires and other considerations as key focal points for the industry.

The research was collected through focus groups consisting of college and university foodservice leaders, as well as foodservice academics, technology experts and facilities design professionals. The focus groups were developed with the goal of understanding the issues facing foodservice providers today. The team also put together an advisory board with foodservice experts such as Zia Ahmed, senior director of dining services at The Ohio State University and Ken Toong, executive director of dining at the University of Massachusetts.  

After determining key concepts based on the focus groups, the team conducted further research on students as employees, looking at areas such as demographics and answering the question of what student employees look for from their employers. The research was conducted by surveying students at higher education institutions that hold a part time job at their school’s dining program.

The majority 79.2% of student employees surveyed were male, while females made up only 19.9% of the survey group. Most (87.3%) of survey respondents were white, while Asian or Pacific Islanders and Native Americans had the lowest representation at .5%.

Here’s a look at some insights as to what the research says about student employees.

Employees want to feel like their work is valued

Feeling like their work is important and valued was described by survey participants as the most important aspect of their jobs, followed by being cross trained in multiple positions. The aspect that was determined the least important, based on survey results, was the ability to have connection with mentors within their organization.

Pay and benefits both play a factor

When it comes to benefits and training, student employees felt it was important to receive training that could be used outside of university foodservice. The second most important aspect to training and benefits was receiving a benefits package that offers discounted rent for housing on or near campus.

Survey participants were asked to rank the importance of each benefit offered with employment. The results suggested employees perceive performance-based bonus plans of high importance. Other important considerations were paid sick leave and health insurance.

When it comes to pay, the survey also indicated that student employees place the most importance on receiving an annual cost of living adjustment. The ability to access pay through a digital app was seen as second most important.

Close to half (40.7%) of participants said they prefer to get paid monthly while 20.4% prefer bi-weekly and 36.2% prefer weekly.

Feeling safe in the workplace is vital

Student employees were also asked about their level of agreement regarding statements about workplace related identity, safety and personal development. The responses indicated that feeling physically safe in their workplace was the most important, with the ability to identify with faculty, students and staff at work ranked as the second most important.

Student employees support DEI and sustainable initiatives

The participants were asked about their understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The student employees strongly supported the importance of DEI training. They also supported the idea of having DEI training mandatory for all university foodservice employees.

The employees reported strong support for sustainability and environmental efforts by their employers, with an emphasis on reducing food waste and purchasing sustainably. Eliminating single use plastics was ranked as less important, as was establishing a compost program.

Student employees are comfortable with automation

When it comes to what technology student employees prefer their employer to use, digital payroll tools were ranked as the most important, followed by a digital inventory tool. Web-based onboarding and training were ranked as the least important. As it pertains to labor, employees showcased a preference to work in an environment where technology is used to address labor shortages, however, they were less inclined to work in an environment where technology replaces human interactions. Overall, survey responses indicated that student employees have a positive attitude toward technology in enhancing their ability to provide hospitality. The survey also indicated that the use of automation to reduce repetitive tasks was perceived positively by employees and participants were comfortable working in an automated assisted environment.

Student employees take the job for the pay

The most common reason student employees said they chose to work for university foodservices was due to the income. The second most common reason was having previous foodservice experience. Other reasons include being part of a work-study program or the ability to work with friends. Some noted that the position was the only one available on campus.