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Why Your University Needs More Student IT Workers

Student employees account for more than half of Southern Illinois University's IT staff. Here's why the benefits of student labor outweigh the risks.

My first day of work as CIO at Southern Illinois University included a sub-basement tour of our networking offices. I was struck with two questions: First, who knew that a basement could have a basement? And second, why is this basement packed full of students?

My previous employer, like most universities, used students to staff computer labs and perhaps some administrative duties within Information Technology. However, the IT department there had a small fraction of the student employees that I was seeing at SIU. That first day's tour revealed four full-time network engineers and 25 networking student employees crammed into cubicles like a Dilbert cartoon.

This use of students is certainly not typical for any university, much less for a research university like SIU. According to the 2013 Educause Core Data Survey, institutions, on average, use "16 percent student workers as a percentage of total central IT FTE." In comparison, SIU has 116 permanent central IT employees working approximately 4,350 hours per week. We also have 239 student employees working approximately 4,780 hours per week. These student employees account for 52 percent of our central IT FTE, which is more than three times the national average. Actually, most of our IT departments have an even higher percentage of student employees since a few of our departments don't use student labor at all.

Upon my arrival at SIU I was skeptical of this student-heavy employment strategy, but over the last couple of years I have become a true believer due to the following benefits:

Cost-effectiveness. The students provide a very cost-effective alternative to traditional IT staffing. The average student hourly wage is often less than a quarter of the full-time employee wage. For a public university that has seen years of declining state allocations, this has proven essential to providing technology to the campus at a very low cost. Additionally, some of these students are employed through the work-study program, where they are paid out of federal funds instead of the Information Technology budget (read: free labor).

Experiential learning. The majority of our student employees come from the academic departments of Information Systems or Computer Science. Employment within the Office of Information Technology provides these students with hands-on experience where they can apply what they are learning in their classes. It also gives them real-world work experience, which is invaluable in helping them get their first job post-graduation.

Talent pool. Having students who are already trained in our work environments provides us with a tremendous talent pool from which to hire entry-level positions as they arise. We can hire former students who are not only fully trained but have already proven their value and work ethic. Our place in the "employer food chain" is to provide an entry-level opportunity for the talented graduates that our school is turning out year after year. In this way we are growing our own workforce.

Special skills. Our students often possess knowledge and skills that are otherwise not available in our regional job market. For example, according to a 2013 Dell SecureWorks presentation, there is only one qualified candidate for every 20 available information security positions. We use six student employees to supplement our full-time information security team of four employees. Some of these student employees are also members of SIU's "Security Dawg" team for Cyber Defense competitions. This team recently won the Illinois state collegiate championship. These students' deep security expertise would not be otherwise available in the talent pool of our rural area. In addition, we use students as developers for our mobile applications and have found that they bring a fresh perspective and highly innovative ideas.

Ability to relate. We also employ students for many non-technical positions in IT because of their ability to relate to our student population. For example, we use a team of communications students to market our Mobile Dawg tablet initiative to prospective students. These students have already been trained on presentation and communication skills in the classroom. They are able to communicate with new students at a peer level. We are also using these students to conduct large training seminars for the new freshmen, preparing them to receive their tablets, electronic textbooks and a host of other software and services.

Short-term labor. Student employment has proven invaluable when we need many employees for a short duration of time. For example, we utilize a large group of students for several weeks as part of our Mobile Dawg project. Students are used to prepare, distribute and support the tablet computers. Additionally, we use lots of students for residence hall computer setup, computer inventory and computer surplus projects. It is a great way to apply serious manpower to a short-term project at a very low cost.

Dealing With Challenges
This isn't to say that using such a high percentage of student labor is always easy. Student employees bring a different reality that includes higher turnover rates, more supervision required, additional training and increased information security risks. However, we have dealt with these challenges in a number of different ways:

Proper supervision. We hire team leads and other full-time staff based not only on their technical ability but on their ability to supervise and teach. For example, each of our full-time network engineers manages a handful of student employees. These technicians need to be good communicators with both supervisory and mentoring skills.

Training and documentation. Our processes need to be fully documented to help student employees become productive quickly. We also provide regular training sessions before the start of each school year.

Academic partnering. It is critical to partner with each of the academic areas from which we receive student employees. We collaborate to recruit students and, when possible, to integrate the student employment experience with the academic program in the form of internships, class projects, etc.

Information security. In a world of state-sponsored cyber-attacks and daily reports of data breaches, we need to be constantly aware of our information security exposure. We manage any additional security risk by carefully limiting students' data access and applying information security best practices.

Limited work hours. Southern Illinois University also carefully manages the number of hours that each student can work. Students are limited to 20 hours per week with only rare (and limited) exceptions. This limit on their work hours is to ensure that they still have time for their classwork and to make certain that we don't violate the Affordable Care Act. It also means that a higher volume of students receive student employment opportunities.

Overall, I think that this is one of those rare situations where everyone wins. The university receives an inexpensive source of labor and a valuable recruiting pool; the student gets a part-time job and real-world experience in his or her field; and the eventual employer gets a graduate with real-world technology experience. Now, if I could only figure out why networking is in a sub-basement….

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