Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Hiring Student Workers

When I first started in my current position, things were a bit hit-or-miss with our student workers. Some of the people we hired were incredibly helpful and worked hard; others, not so much. I don't want to go into details about specific problems we had, since these are real people here, but I will let you know that there was a lack of service orientation. So, seeing a problem, I did what librarians do: I did some research. I...
  • talked to people around the school to find what they were doing and to see if they were happy with their student employees; 
  • talked to librarians at other schools to pick their brains; 
  • talked to my staff about what they wanted to see.

After gathering all that information, I reworked our hiring process. The first change was to create an employment application. The form we use is a pretty basic one, but it gives us a lot up front. We ask for things like availability, of course, since we have certain priorities for front desk coverage. We also ask obvious questions like, "Why do you want to work for the library?" There aren't any wrong answers to that, but when we see something like "because the library seems like a nice quiet environment," it gives us the opportunity to explain how the library isn't (nor should it be) always quiet.

Then there's the interview. We came up with a script that we follow with each candidate:
  • How would you handle an angry patron/customer?
  • When you use libraries, how do you use them?
  • How do you like to learn?
  • How do you handle work/volunteer projects you’re given?
  • Tell me about a previous job, either volunteer or for pay — what did you love and what didn’t you like?
  • How do you respond when you don’t know the answer to a question?
  • What is good customer service?
  • How would you handle it if the phone rang right as a line formed at the circulation desk?
  • What questions do you have for me?

If it's not already obvious, let me point out to you the distinct focus on patron service. These students who work for me are frequently the first person that a patron sees when they walk in the front door of the library. We want friendly and outgoing and service oriented individuals who will work hard. We ask about learning because we are counting on having to teach them the day-to-day stuff. Heck, for some of our student workers, this is the first job they've ever had. We can teach them how to check out books and pull holds; we can't teach them how to be friendly and outgoing.

The results of the new process are easy to see. The students who work for the library are great members of our team who are eager to learn and to assist our patrons. Of course, part of this is also tied to the training they receive, but that's a whole other blog post. Regardless, we're all very happy with our group.

How about you? How do you hire student workers? Or, if you're at a public library, how do you hire pages?


  1. Your process seems very similar to ours. I'm the Library Service Desk Coordinator at Emory and recruiting the right students is very important. A question came up at ALA in a customer service session about whether people "have it" when it comes to a service orientation or can it be coached/taught. I lean towards the former, but I've definitely hired students who had potential and not real service experience. Watching these students develop in their skills is an exciting part of my job!

  2. From my experience, another important factor is having clear tasks to work on and clear reporting lines. We had repeated problems with student staff slowly drifting into not really doing anything. Cheerful, pleasant, capable people who should have been good staff.

    As far as I could tell, the problem was that they were slowly trained up by desk staff, but never given an actual list of tasks and priorities. It’s quite easy to drift into staying on the desk, because readers are the first priority, but also because when you run out of work elsewhere it’s where you end up. It also tends to mean you can faff on the web or even do assignments when it’s quiet, which I’m sure is a factor.

    At the same time, the staff working with students weren’t given authority over them, and the line managers rarely worked those shifts. Issues could only be raised in retrospect, and most of the fallout had to be dealt with by desk staff, be it several full trolleys at 9am or all the readers coming to one staff member because a student at the other desk is writing an essay and wearing a busy face. I’m sure this distance made it easier to shrug off these issues and be grateful you at least have some casual staff.

    This resulted in a lot of frustration for the core staff. If casual staff can spend fully half their shift making personal phone calls from the garden, and the line manager told of this the following day merely looks mournful and suggests that they'll graduate soon, it's hard not to be exasperated with both.

    In this situation, even good people can end up drifting if they're not highly motivated, and perhaps actively wanting some menial tasks as a break from study. Because students often work quieter shifts like evenings and weekends, it’s easy to perceive it as a laid-back job where you don’t need to do much. As such, I'd say that it's important to have a clear, prioritised job description for the students to work from, and to work hard on those lines of supervision. Simply recruiting well isn't enough.