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Training and Managing Student Employees in the Computer Center Copyright 1990 CAUSE From _CAUSE/EFFECT_ Volume 13,

Number 1, Spring 1990. Permission to copy or disseminate all or part of this material is granted provided that the copies are not made or distributed for commercial advantage, the CAUSE copyright and its dateappear, and notice is given that copying is by permission of CAUSE, the association for managing and using information resources in higher education. To disseminate otherwise, or to republish, requires written permission. For further information, contact CAUSE, 4840 Pearl East Circle, Suite 302E, Boulder, CO 80301, 303-449-4430, e-mail info@CAUSE.colorado.edu TRAINING AND MANAGING STUDENT EMPLOYEES IN THE COMPUTER CENTER by Jan A. Richard ************************************************************************ Jan A. Richard is Assistant Director and Head of User Services for Academic Computing at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania. One of her responsibilities is to hire, train, and manage forty student employees. She earned a BA in classical civilization from Yale University and an MS in computer science, with emphasis on artificial intelligence, from Villanova University. Prior to joining the staff at Haverford in 1987, she worked as a scientific programmer for a small company and taught high school. ************************************************************************ ABSTRACT: This article describes methods used by the Academic Computer Center at Haverford College for hiring, training, and managing student employees, including both successful and unsuccessful experiences. Problems encountered in managing students are discussed, and incentives for improving performance are suggested. The author offers guidance concerning appropriate roles and expectations for student employees in a computer center. Much of the analysis is based on responses to a questionnaire distributed to current and former employees at Haverford. Students are a significant resource for providing effective user computing services. In a small college environment, where computer center staff are in short supply, students are essential to the proper functioning of the center. They can be employed in a variety of ways: supervising computer clusters, responding to user questions, manning help "hotlines," teaching seminars, performing system management functions, repairing hardware, programming, and supervising other student employees. At Haverford College, we have learned from experience that the key to effective use of student labor is well-conceived hiring, training, and management practices. Academic Computing at Haverford Haverford is a small liberal arts college located in Haverford, Pennsylvania, with approximately 1,100 undergraduate students and 90 FTE faculty.The community is close-knit, with most students as well as faculty living on campus. An academic and social honor code governs student behavior. There are no graduate programs, and the curriculum is heavily arts and sciences oriented, with no professional majors such as

engineering, business, or education. A small computer science concentration, introduced two years ago, is affiliated with the mathematics department. Most of the computer use at Haverford involves word processing and electronic mail. Graphics and spreadsheet packages are used by some in the sciences, and various statistical packages are used in both the sciences and social sciences. There are some database users, mostly in the humanities, and programming is done by a few individuals in various departments. A centralized VAX 6310 is connected to every college-owned device via a data PBX network.[1] Every student and faculty member is automatically given an account on the VAX, and most of them use it for electronic mail exclusively. Microcomputer use has traditionally been dominated by IBM PCs, but in the last two years the Macintosh has gained significant ground. The Academic Computer Center (ACC) at Haverford, which is entirely separate from the Administrative Computer Center, is responsible for serving the needs of faculty and students. We maintain three public computer clusters and several workstations with limited access. The center staff consists of six regular, full-time personnel: the director, the assistant director and head of user services, an academic computing consultant, an office manager, and two hardware technicians. A newly added documentation and training specialist serves half-time in the ACC and half-time as a computer science laboratory assistant. Among the many responsibilities of the assistant director is the hiring, training, and managing of student employees, a function that demands a large percentage, perhaps fifty percent or more, of her time. We currently employ forty student assistants (SAs) at the ACC. The majority work in the three public clusters, distributing software, responding to user questions, and solving problems. Each SA works about eight hours per week for regularly scheduled shifts. In addition, there are several "special" SAs who perform specific tasks: * Two VAX and Unix system managers who are responsible for maintaining the operating systems and performing tasks as requested by staff members. * A hardware assistant who assists the technicians in maintaining and repairing computers. * Two lead student assistants who serve as liaisons between SAs and ACC staff and assist in training other employees. Lead SAs are appointed as juniors and hold the position for two years. * A VAX backup person who performs weekly and quarterly backups on weekends. * Four cluster managers who oversee the operation of one of the clusters and perform tasks as requested by full-time staff. * A programmer who performs short programming tasks for faculty or the ACC. Major Challenges and Issues in Student Employment

Student employees differ from regular employees in many ways that raise unique challenges in managing them. First, they are at school in order to learn; their job necessarily takes second priority and the time and energy they have to devote to their work is severely limited. Second, they are necessarily part-time, temporary employees; this fact limits the amount of training we can practically afford to do and thus the level of work we can expect. Third, they are generally young and inexperienced at work; this means we must not only train them in computer skills, but must also work to foster basic qualities like dependability, good judgement, communication, and the like. The two most difficult problems with using student labor are training and scheduling. Computer center jobs generally require more knowledge and experience than other campus jobs. This means we have to hire students early, train them well, and then keep them for four years in order to have a reasonable return on our investment. Scheduling is a constant problem, because we depend on them for specific shifts each week, and they have numerous other commitments that may conflict with their job. Helping them to establish priorities, while allowing for some flexibility in the schedule, is essential. A related issue in student employment is that many students are not experienced with work. They often don't understand the problems they create when they "forget" a shift or when they overcommit themselves and cannot carry out their obligations. We view our relationship with student employees in terms of our educational role as well. What they learn in their jobs in terms of responsibility, commitment, skills, and dealing with people may influence how they succeed after college as much as what they learn in the classroom will. It is important for us to recognize our commitment to them in this light as well as their commitment to us. It is also necessary to determine what are reasonable roles for students and ones in which they can be successful. To expect a full-time student to perform a task that requires an excessive amount of time or responsibility can be disastrous both for the computer center and the student. Student jobs must be well thought out and sufficient guidance provided so that the student is capable of succeeding. Another issue to consider is that of putting students in the role of rule enforcers for other students. Although some may enjoy the sense of responsibility and trust this involves, others feel uncomfortable with being put in this position. Rules should be clearcut, so that students do not feel responsible for making arbitrary decisions that affect fellow students. It is all well and good to theorize on the best way to train and manage student employees, but we wanted to know what the students themselves felt about the jobs we and they were doing. To this end we developed a questionnaire which was sent to forty-five current students, and to seventeen graduates who worked for us during the 1988-1989 school year. The questionnaire focused on training, job attitude, interests and motivation, gripes, self-image, attitude toward management, and policy issues. Of the sixty-two current and former employees who received the questionnaire, thirty-eight responded. The responses served to reinforce or disprove our suspicions about various aspects of our training and management. The questionnaires also brought out some issues that students were concerned about that we had never considered. Survey

responses are used throughout this article as anecdotal evidence to support some of our observations and beliefs[2] Finding and Hiring the Right Students In a student body of 1,100 liberal arts majors, finding forty responsible students with computer experience, interest, and willingness to work is not an easy task. We prefer to hire freshmen because of the amount of training and experience needed to become good at the job. For the past two years we have lost about fifteen students each year to graduation. This has created problems in terms of hiring and training, as well as those associated with operating with a relatively inexperienced group. In order to find enough applications, we have had to advertise through the career development and financial aid offices and with posters. Current student employees have also been very helpful in finding qualified applicants. As in society as a whole, fewer women college students seem interested in working with and becoming proficient in the use of computers than men. This is reflected in the approximately one to four ratio of applications for employment from women students. Happily, we are seeing a gradual increase in these numbers, partly due to the increase in exposure of women to computers before college, and partly from the excellent example set by our current female employees. Another problem is deciding whom to hire. We ask applicants to fill out a short application form assessing their skills in different areas and explaining why they want to work for us. We then ask most of them in for a ten-minute interview. The qualifications we look for have changed considerably over time. At the beginning, we looked mostly for computer experience. Now we find that this is not always an indicator of who will be good. People who are "hackers" sometimes get bored with the low level of assistance people need, and often are not patient with inexperienced users. A much more important quality is enthusiasm for learning about computers. We also look for people who communicate well and are interested in helping people. The most important quality for us has been maturity and a sense of responsibility. We look for students who are willing to commit themselves to eight hours a week, who have held other jobs or who think it is important to have work experience, and who have a good reason for applying for this job as opposed to other, less demanding jobs on campus. We have found it very important to explain what the expectations will be, especially to freshmen, and make sure they know what they are getting into. Many freshmen are unaware of the many demands of college life, and have not considered how having a job might affect their academic and social lives. Although we cannot always tell who will be responsible in a short interview, we can often see whether they've considered these issues. Retaining and Motivating Student Employees Next to hiring the right people, the most important thing is retaining them. We have had considerable success retaining employees. The few who have quit have done so because of academic or personal reasons unrelated to their job. Because jobs in the computer center tend to be more demanding than

other campus jobs, and because it is important to us to retain good employees, we have had to make our jobs more attractive. There are several factors involved in motivating and retaining students. Pay and "perks." We try to keep our pay scale slightly ahead of other jobs on campus. In the questionnaire, students expressed that although money was an important factor in seeking a job, the higher rate of pay was not what kept them in it. After-hours access to all computer centers, the major perk, proved to be a more important incentive. But by far the two most important motivating factors were helping people and an opportunity to learn about computers. Satisfaction and/or fun. Both our experience and the results of our survey bear out the importance of enjoyment as a motivation for working. Ninety-two percent of respondents said they enjoyed their jobs, and an equal percent said the fact that it was more fun than other jobs was an important incentive in their decision to continue in the job. Several SAs mentioned getting to know other SAs and users as a source of enjoyment. Group cohesiveness. We have worked to foster group cohesiveness among SAs, as they must depend on each other for assistance with problems and covering shifts, and because being part of a group can be a source of motivation. One successful group enterprise was a studentorganized intramural volleyball team. We also have monthly dinner meetings in which we discuss issues and sometimes have a speaker on a topic of interest. Surveyed students expressed the opinion that SAs are a cohesive group, and most said they had made friends with other SAs whom they would not have gotten to know otherwise. Positive reinforcement. Many students have not worked much with computers before, and may not have held a serious job. They need to know that the work they are doing is good, and especially that it is appreciated by users and by the full-time staff. It helps to make a point of thanking students for the small things they do. To recognize their contributions, we instituted an "SA of the Month" award presented at our monthly meeting, with the prize a computer center teeshirt and a letter outlining their contributions. Seventy-four percent of the questionnaire respondents felt that being "SA of the Month" was an honor. Positive reinforcement also means the opportunity for advancement. We have a four-tiered ladder: novice, intermediate, regular, and special SA. Although the financial rewards of advancement are limited by the college's pay scale for student employees, we try to make the promotions offer a personal challenge. After their first semester working for us, new employees are given a 20-minute oral test. If they pass, and their work record is good, they are promoted to intermediate SA. At the end of the second semester, they are given a much more difficult hands-on test that may last two hours and tests how good their problem-solving skills are. If they pass this, they are promoted to regular SA. When positions for special SAs open up, the employee who is best qualified and most dedicated is selected. Opportunity to learn. We also feel that students needed to be encouraged to do extra projects to help the computer center when they have a quiet shift. In addition to helping us, this provides them with an opportunity to learn something new and to be creative. Responsibility and status. In the questionnaire, eleven students expressed an interest in teaching classes, and several more responded

favorably to a mail message asking for people interested in teaching computer literacy classes to freshmen the next year. Teaching is an excellent way to provide student employees with a challenge, while relieving staff members of having to teach the same introductory classes many times over. It is important, however, to provide the student with necessary guidance on how to teach, and to provide or to help him or her develop training materials. Promise of future rewards. Promise of future rewards is difficult to use as an incentive, especially for freshmen. In fact, though, freshmen are generally enthusiastic about the job, and the enthusiasm wanes as they get older. So for seniors, this becomes an important motivating factor. Only 26 percent of those surveyed felt that improving their resume was very important in their decision to stay with the job. However, 61 percent agreed that learning good work habits in college was important and 97 percent said the computer skills they learn in the job will be valuable to them in the future. Many of the graduates who responded to our survey described how their job with the computer center has helped them more than they expected in their current jobs. In addition to providing incentives to students to stay with the job, we try to recognize and minimize the negative aspects of the job. When asked what they liked least about their job, students most often mentioned: (1) demanding or ungrateful users, (2) not having enough experience or time to do a good job, and (3) chaos during exam time. Although the first problem is not one we can necessarily control, we try to educate users whenever possible to the difficulty and importance of the job the student employees are doing. The other two problems are more within our power to deal with. We try to provide continuous training for our employees so that they feel confident in their abilities (see more on this below); we know the better trained our employees are, the more problems they can solve without involving us. The problem of exam-time chaos is a very real one. There are more problems and demands for limited resources at these times. Besides the budget constraints, the main problem with doubling up on staff during exam time is lack of manpower. Students do not have time to take on extra shifts during exams. Thus additional staffing during peak periods must come from full-time staff, during the day, or special employees, like our "lead SAs."[3] We are also realistic in our expectations of students to retain them. We expect them to take their job obligations seriously, but also recognize that they are students first. We try to make the schedule flexible enough so that they can fulfill their academic commitments. This means providing them with a mechanism for accommodating schedule changes and other commitments. At the beginning of each semester, students are given a temporary schedule of shifts based on the class schedule they hand in at the end of the previous semester. When they have finalized their course selections, a swap meet is held so students can trade away shifts they don't want and pick up new ones. After that, we maintain a "swap" board on the VAX, where students send in shifts they want to unload either permanently or on a one-time basis. They retain responsibility for the shift until they find a substitute and both parties inform us of the agreement. This system has worked well, and most students agree this provides the needed flexibility. Training Student Employees There are three main areas that we cover in training: policy,

techniques, and skills. Policy covers rules and procedures that should be followed and enforced by employees. At the beginning of the year, we have all new student employees meet with regular staff members to go over policy and allow students to ask questions. This ensures that all students have the same understanding of the rules, and also opens the paths of communication between supervisors and employees. Students are given a written outline of what is covered in the meeting, and copies are available to them in the workplace. Techniques training involves teaching students how to help users and what to do when they don't know the answers. This training can also be done, in part, in a group situation, using role-playing to help students learn helpful ways of instructing users. New employees are introduced to available documentation and on-line tutorials and shown how to use them. We also maintain a Student Assistant Handbook which covers most topics they are responsible for and solutions to common problems. This reference must be kept up to date and well indexed, or students will not use it. Student employees must learn how to use available documentation effectively, as we can not hope to teach them everything they need to know to solve problems that will arise. Teaching specific computer skills is by far the most time-consuming and ongoing challenge in training SAs. This training needs to be handson. We begin with a mentor system which pairs each new employee with a veteran student employee. During the first month of the semester, the trainees do not have their own shifts, but rather go to the mentor's shifts. The mentor is given a list of topics to cover with the trainee. This includes administrative duties, handling printers, DOS, Macintosh and VMS operating systems, Microsoft Word (DOS and Mac), how to get into and out of various applications, on-line tutorials, electronic mail, Kermit, file recovery, and problem-solving skills. When they have covered this brief list, the mentor observes while the trainee takes over the job of distributing software and assisting users. When both feel ready, the new employee is given his or her own shifts. The mentor system is very successful, as it provides the new employees with real experience without leaving them entirely on their own. It also encourages a relationship between new and older employees, and gives the veteran a chance to review skills which may have become rusty over the summer. But this system must be supplemented by staff-run training sessions as well. Particularly these past two years, when we have had a large proportion of new employees, we have found that some of the mentors themselves needed additional training. In response to this, we have added a training session for mentors. In the questionnaire, students strongly expressed the need for additional training opportunities on all levels with experienced staff members. Although they did not feel that it was too much to expect them to learn what they were required to know, they did feel they needed more help learning it. In response to the perceived need, we began this year to offer one-hour training modules on a variety of different topics at various levels. These were hands-on sessions, and students were given outlines of what was covered. The sessions were well-attended and productive, but limitations in staff time prevented us from offering as many as we would have liked. The addition of a half-time training and documentation specialist this year has allowed us to develop a broader range of training modules, and to offer two to three modules a month. Another attempt to deal with the training problem was the creation of training groups. All the SAs were divided into four groups, each led

by a staff member or one of the two lead SAs. Groups met once a month in the leader's room or office. The purpose was for someone to keep in touch with each SA and make sure they were learning what they needed to know. We also went over topics that seemed important to cover, and gave the students a chance to express concerns or ask questions. These meetings met with mixed reviews, with negative comments often referring to poor group makeup. Nevertheless, leaders found them productive and a good way to maintain communication. Electronic mail is an indispensable means of telling employees about new software and clarifying policy matters. It is the only way to disperse information to the whole group in a timely fashion. Monthly meetings also play a role in the dissemination of information. Even if we can get all employees up to speed on the general categories covered in mentor training, there are a large number of software packages we own in small quantities that even the full-time staff members are not familiar with. Two years ago we decided that, in order to encourage veterans to continue learning, and to be able to provide some support for these packages, we would require every SA to have a specialty. All SAs filled out sheets indicating their current level of expertise on various packages, and then chose at least two products that they did not know well but would like to learn. New SAs chose one of the basic topics on which to concentrate. This was a good idea, but did not meet with much success because we did not have time to follow up on each person and see what he or she had learned. Ideally, we would have liked to have every person give a class to other SAs on one of their topics. Only 55 percent of our surveyed students felt that requiring SAs to develop a specialty was a good idea. An important part of training is evaluating employees' progress. Periodic testing, as described earlier, allows staff members to see how individual students are progressing. and also provides feedback on the success of the training program. Also important are students' own perceptions of their skills. Responses to questions about their skill level when they were hired compared to the present indicate that students felt their skills had increased considerably as a result of their experience and training. Training, we have found, is an activity that must be ongoing -- not something that happens only in the first semester of a student's employment. Student employees must be kept up to date on the new technology, and must continually be stimulated to learn new things so they do not become bored in their jobs. Unfortunately, training is a time-consuming project for regular staff, as it involves considerable preparation in addition to the time spent with students. We have not found a good method to reduce or eliminate staff involvement. At the beginning level, the mentor system saves staff considerable time and is successful. But students clearly expressed that they wanted regular staff members to conduct most of the ongoing and advanced training. We expect a certain amount of self-training for advanced students, but we find that most of the training must be done in a group setting by regular staff. Managing Student Employees We must remember that we are not only employers to our students, but educators as well. More than teaching them the specific skills of their job, we can help them develop the qualities that they will need in their careers: responsibility, diligence, cooperation, and initiative,

to name a few. While recognizing that they have obligations as students, we must also let them know that this is a "real" job with real world expectations. One of the biggest problems we have had with SAs is students failing to show up for a shift. In fact, we have had to fire three students for repeatedly missing shifts, and this concerns us greatly. This is a problem that affects all departments that hire students, but it is particularly troublesome to the ACC because it inconveniences many other people when a student does not show up to monitor a cluster. Usually the reason is that they: (1) forgot they had a shift, (2) knew they had the shift but forgot what day it was, or (3) slept through it (which happens at any time of the day or night). All of these are typical student behavior, but none is an acceptable excuse. Students surveyed were very responsive about how to deal with the problem. Most suggested specific actions depending on the number of offenses. The usual progression was: (1) give warning and/or explain the consequences of their behavior, (2) demote or cut salary, (3) fire them. Most recognized that this is basically what we had been doing, although we have no formal policy about this. No one said that we were too harsh, but some did suggest ways of alleviating pressures on students as a means of dealing with the problem. For example, they suggested letting students do homework during their shifts, or increasing the length of shifts so students have fewer shifts to remember. We have tried many different approaches to the problem, and each has been somewhat successful for some students. We have found that the most important thing is to let students know from the beginning what our expectations are, and that we consider a sense of responsibility and commitment to be as important for them to develop as the specific skills they need to do their job. (Seventy-four percent of the questionnaire respondents indicated students should be given a written list of expectations when they are hired.) We also make sure students understand that we will make an effort to help them be responsible, for example, by providing them with a swap mechanism for trading shifts, and that we will be reasonable in our expectations and treatment of them. Finally, we have set limits to what we will tolerate. This has meant firing people who are basically good employees, but who have not shown any progress in this area. Another management concern has been the number of hours students work. We have stated that we expect students to work 8 to 10 hours per week. This is because the training and overhead costs are too great if students work fewer hours, and also because we feel the privilege of having 24-hour access to centers requires some obligation on their part. By the end of the semester, as a result of trading away shifts, several students had worked only 3 to 5 hours per week. Although we try to accommodate students with academic or medical problems, we feel it is important to maintain a minimum standard for most students. This gives students the message that this is a "real" job, and not something they do when they feel like it. Closely related to fostering a sense of responsibility is promoting self-image. In a job where knowledge and experience are very important, it is easy for students to feel inadequate or ineffective. Thirty seven percent felt they did not know enough to be an SA; most of these had worked for us for only two semesters. Ninety-two percent said they were reliable workers and 89 percent felt they did their best at work. These last two statistics are encouraging, but we can't claim that this

resulted from anything we did. Fifty percent felt they did not get enough feedback about how they are doing. Clearly, it is important to communicate our assessment of each individual's progress to him or her as often as possible. Testing is valuable for this at the early stages. We also try to send a short mail message to each employee at the end of each semester, outlining areas showing improvement and ones that still need work. As students are making the transition from the adolescent to the adult world, it is important to give them a say in policies that affect them. They find it easier to enforce rules that they help create, and their direct experience with users often makes them better judges of what will work. Full-time staff must distinguish between issues that affect only the operation of the computer center and those that have repercussions in the community as a whole. Often the latter have to be decided by the staff, who will have to answer to the community for the decision. Students have been consulted, however, on how to handle crowded centers, how to deal with infractions of the rules, and other matters that involve them. In addition to discussing these matters as a group in monthly meeting, we meet with the lead SAs every week to decide on various issues. Lead SAs play a key role in all decisions that affect student employees. In creating jobs for students, it is important to avoid both extremes: a job that quickly becomes boring, and one that is too demanding for the student to handle. Each student is different in terms of experience and motivation, and it is important to be able to challenge each appropriately. A job working in the public clusters, helping users, is challenging at first, but it can become frustrating answering the same questions again and again. To ensure that students who desire a challenge are accommodated, we try to offer ample opportunities for them to contribute in different ways. We have been notably successful with our hardware assistant and lead SA positions because of our efforts to select the right student for the job, and to provide sufficient guidance and training so that the students in these positions feel confident. We have had less success with system managers. This is a particularly demanding position that requires considerable time and experience, and few students have either. It is also important to find a student who is mature and responsible, but hiring an older student means high turnover. Supervision is difficult, because the student spends a great deal of time working alone. Although students have found system management to be a good learning experience, it can be difficult to find the right student and the right structure to make it work. Concluding Advice Student employees are a precious resource, but we must work hard to foster their development. With proper training and management, we can help students become happier and more productive in their work. Both students and staff can benefit greatly if we follow these guidelines: * Hire the best students and keep them. Look for qualities like maturity, reliability, and willingness to learn, rather than specific computer skills. * Make expectations clear from the start. Expect them to treat the

job like a "real" job, but also recognize that they are students first. * Make expectations reasonable. Provide sufficient training and guidance. Use as many training methods as possible, recognizing that different students learn in different ways. Provide feedback on their progress. * Encourage group cohesiveness among employees. They need to be able to depend on their co-workers, and the relationships they develop will often be a source of enjoyment and satisfaction. * Recognize the importance of educating student employees. Help them become better employees by teaching them about responsibility, about relating to supervisors and clients, and other skills they will need in the future. Be demanding and understanding at the same time. * Give them a say in matters that affect them. Take their suggestions and gripes seriously. Implement their ideas, or encourage them to, whenever possible. Treat them as adults and give them responsibility for their situation. ======================================================================== Footnotes 1 Haverford's data PBX network is described in Edmund Meyers' "A Data PBX as an Alternative LAN," in CAUSE/EFFECT, January 1988, pp. 12-21. 2 Interested readers are encouraged to contact the author for a copy of the survey questionnaire and a complete analysis of the responses. Inquiries may be addressed to Jan Richard, Assistant Director and Head of User Services, Academic Computer Center, Haverford College, 370 Lancaster Avenue, Haverford, Pennsylvania 19041-1392, or to J_RICHARD@HVRFORD. BITNET. 3 Another way that we handle the need for additional help during exam time without increasing our budget or having to hire additional employees is through our Volunteer Monitor program. Interested students volunteer to work for a specified period of time, and are trained by a regular SA. They are responsible for enforcing rules and for keeping track of hardware and software, but are not required to help other users. Under this program, the student government agrees to be responsible for any damage or loss that occurs while a volunteer monitor is on duty. The system has worked fairly well except for occasional violations of rules and procedures, and no damage or loss has occurred. ========================================================================