While all of us get back into the routine of classes, lectures and homework, a significant number of our college peers nationwide are settling into their school-year jobs. As reported by the U.S. Census in January, approximately 71 percent of full-time college students worked at least part-time year-round in 2011. Though students may decide to seek out college employment for a variety of reasons, finding a well-paying, flexible job can be challenging.

While many students hope to work in a research lab or as a personal assistant to a professor, the scarcity and competitive nature of those positions force many students to find employment elsewhere. Some of the largest University employers include the libraries, recreational sports, the Michigan League, the Michigan Union and University Housing, which employs more than 2,000 temporary student workers a year.

After my own unsuccessful search for one of those “impressive” college jobs, I resigned myself to accept employment at a University dining hall. Work was rarely fun and extremely tedious, but the steady income and flexible shifts convinced me to stay on. Now after four semesters of working in dining halls doing anything but glamorous work, I have discovered there’s valuable experience and skills to be gained working in that environment.

I only began to realize this as I started hunting for internships during my junior year. During an interview with a potential employer, I was asked to talk about a specific incident or problem that I had experienced at a previous job and how I reacted to it. It was a fairly standard interview question, but I struggled to remember any grand problem solving skills I had used while alphabetizing legal documents the summer before. Instead, I found myself talking about an incident while working in the dish room at South Quad Residence Hall’s dining hall. We were significantly understaffed, but through some teamwork and effective communication, we managed to still close on time — much to the surprise of our superiors. After describing a scene similar to the dwarves from “The Hobbit” washing dishes, I not only had my interviewer laughing her head off, but also ended up getting the job.

This summer, the dining hall provided me with an opportunity to take on a new leadership role. After an application and a long-distance Skype interview, I became a Coordinator II — responsible for the other student employees and running a smooth meal service.

Having responsibility over subordinates is a critical trait that potential new employers look for in a perspective employee’s resume as it shows leadership skills and accountability. Like many of my fellow students, all the internships I’ve had were bottom-rung positions, giving me hands-on experience, but rarely in an authoritative roll. Having the opportunity to demonstrate these skills in a workplace setting is a rare opportunity among student jobs.
Beyond these unsuspected skills and opportunities gained from working at the dining halls, they also introduce students to the working world.

While the permanent staff is very aware and accommodating of the many challenges of student life, they still demand a high level of professionalism from their student employees. Students must learn how to communicate with superiors and responsibly handle workplace issues, while still maintaining a comfortable work environment. This acts as important training for when students start their post-graduation careers and find themselves in tense meetings or even simple interactions with superiors.

While there’s very little allure to many student jobs, they’re filled with opportunities to build on workplace skills that can’t be learned in a classroom. When looking to earn a little money in-between classes, students must realize the job is what they make of it. Though putting research assistant may sound better than dishwasher on your résumé, there are still valuable experiences and career benefits in both jobs — even if they aren’t initially obvious.

Timothy Burroughs can be reached at timburr@umich.edu

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