Getting the Most out of Your Student Workers

February 24, 2016

In higher ed, resources are often tight. But there is one resource that we have in spades: students. In addition to their experiences, which provide endless fodder for content opportunities, students can also be invaluable resources in your communications office in helping manage your websites. They are motivated to gain professional expertise and bring a perspective close to that of your primary audience.

However, like any resource, student web workers should be managed purposefully. Here are some guidelines for ensuring that you maximize value from your student workers.

Free Labor is Never Free

We can’t treat student workers like free candy - a bountiful, unlimited resource that will only bring us joy and delight and not eat up any of our budget. Even if you offer credit instead of pay (though I recommend offering a competitive salary, to attract and ensure a quality employee), you will still spend a healthy amount of time time managing and guiding your student workers.

By planning out the role and contributions of your student workers before you bring them on board, you will be both equipping them for success and making your life easier.

Plan for the Short-Term

In the very, very best case scenario, you will have an undergraduate student worker for four years. But that is generally an exception to the rule. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a student worker sticking around for one or two years - perhaps just a semester. That means you need to plan their responsibilities accordingly. I have heard from far too many clients where a student worker or grad student built a website, app, or other feature that could not be sustained after they quit or graduated. No fun for anyone, especially your audience.

Create a job description for your student workers that maps to your digital strategy, finding ways they can begin making meaningful contributions with a quick ramp-up, and not placing so much responsibility on them that you will be suffering if they depart sooner rather than later.

Develop Training and Guidelines

Contrary to popular belief, “digital natives” are not born with innate knowledge of your CMS, or best practices for managing a Twitter account. Student workers need a lot of guidance to understand how best to complete various digital tasks, as well as understanding your institution’s brand, process, and goals.

By creating a student worker manual that provides guidelines around branding, style, content creation, news story development, communications goals, platform best practices, and overall editorial process (accompanied by training to ensure they understand said guidelines), you’ll be giving your students the guidance they need to do their work appropriately. You will also be creating an invaluable authoritative resource documenting the purpose and process behind what you do and how you do it - and that is helpful to students and staff alike.

Tap Groups on Campus

Are there existing units or organizations on your campus whose expertise might be valuable to you? Some examples include a journalism or TV production program, an advertising club, or a human factors or UX student society.

Establish relationships with these clubs to get their assistance with special projects, such as a short videos about campus life, but also to mine them for student employees.

Be a Professional Reference

Also, one of the greatest gifts you can give a strong student worker is being a professional reference. Be a resource to them even after they leave your employ - leave a LinkedIn recommendation on their profile, serve as a reference on future job or grad school applications, and check in with them about their post-graduate plans.

Seniors and recent grads are frequently seeking guidance around their future plans, but may not realize they can ask people like the boss at their student job (that means you) for help - so let them know you are available to help.

How do you use student workers to support your website?

Additional reading from Meet Content:

Supporting your Content Strategy with Student Workers, Part 1
Supporting your Content Strategy with Student Workers, Part 2

Additional reading from A List Apart:

Cultivating the Next Generation of Web Professionals

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