During so-called “normal” times — that is, before the COVID-19 pandemic — the University of Minnesota’s Recreation and Wellness Department employed about 700 students. By the time campus recreation facilities reopened in the summer of 2020 with limited programming and capacity, the number of student staff members had dwindled to what associate department director Lisa Stephenson calls “the bare minimum.” And many of them were tasked with rigorous equipment cleaning and the unenviable responsibility of enforcing face mask policies. They also helped oversee new socially distanced intramurals activities such as badminton and cornhole.
“We’re still in the ramping-up phase, as far as returning to programming and bringing back student staff,” Stephenson says, 18 months after the University of Minnesota campus shut down in March 2020. “We’ve been able to attract students back to work, but our facility usage is only at about 65 percent of what it would usually be at this time of year.”
The biggest challenge, according to Stephenson and her campus recreation colleagues around the country, is finding enough students willing to work — especially when off-campus employers might be offering better wages.
“We’re doing a lot of mass hiring,” says Chrissy Galli, associate director of Recreational Sports at the University of California, Berkeley, which is the second-largest employer of students on campus, with pre-pandemic student staffing numbers pushing 350. “But Rec Sports is not the only department that’s hiring after a year and half with few, if any, student employees. So, students have a lot of opportunities.”
In some cases, students are opting to focus on priorities other than work, such as adapting to whatever their new normal has become. “Students went through a year of virtual classes and now things are returning to in-person learning, and they have made the very respectable decision to postpone taking on a job. They have told us, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to handle everything, so I don’t think I can add more to my schedule right now,’ and that’s fair,” says Aliyah Valdez, a graduate assistant for group fitness in the Department of Recreational Sports at The Ohio State University, where she oversees approximately 60 student employees.
While not unexpected, that sense of uncertainty among students created a challenge for campus recreation professionals in hiring mode. “We have two new classes of individuals on campus this year. We have the first-years, and we also have the second-years, who really didn’t get to experience their first year,” Valdez says. “How that relates to job applicants is that we’re probably not getting as many as we would typically, because there are so many new students on campus that just don’t know what to expect — not only as it relates to college but as it relates to working while in college.”
The good news, though, is that students who are working in campus recreation jobs are happy to be back. “They’re excited about feeling some sense of normalcy,” Cal’s Galli says. “And I think that working in Rec Sports, having a campus job, is part of that normalcy.”
‘Meet students where they’re at’
With so much uncertainty still in the air, Galli — co-chair of the NIRSA Student Staff Development Task Force, which was created last summer to develop and share ideas and best practices — suggests now is a good time for campus recreation professionals to re-evaluate their recruitment strategies. If they haven’t already done so, rec professionals should consider partnering with other departments and organizations on campus for outreach to underrepresented populations and international students, thus helping ensure a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Virtual job fairs also are emerging as an effective way to recruit more students. “Meet students where they’re at, which is typically on their phones,” Galli says. “Students might be bound by transportation issues or other commitments that keep them away from campus when they’re not in class and, as a result, are unable to attend an in-person job fair. We’re not limiting our recruiting to in-person opportunities.”
That strategy is paying off. A departmental virtual hiring fair last spring attracted enough students to fill several campus recreation positions, according to Galli. She also notes that the Recreational Sports department’s employment needs had nearly been met by mid-September.
Hiring intentionally — that is, understanding current operational needs and being specific about how you fill them — is critical. “Don’t just do an open call,” Galli advises. “There’s a big difference between saying ‘Rec Sports is hiring’ versus ‘We’re looking for lifeguards.’ You might have to make modifications to the way you hire and not rely on things you’ve done successfully in the past.”
The NIRSA Student Staff Development Task Force is in the process of developing core competencies for both supervisors of students and student employees, which Galli says also will assist in staff recruitment and retention.
One recruiting strategy that is not expected to change, however, is the influence carried by word of mouth — which has long been the bedrock of finding student staff members. “A lot of our employees have been participants,” says Stephenson, who was a co-presenter during an Ideas in Motion discussion in September titled “Senior Leaders and the Talent Shuffle: How the pandemic is challenging the hiring and retention of talent.” “If they haven’t been participating, it’s hard to sell them on what their job would be. I’m hopeful that as we start to get back to greater participation, with students having memorable experiences and talking about them with others, that we’ll see the talent pool regenerating.”
Keep the faith
Throughout the pandemic, individual states, counties, cities and campus communities have responded to COVID-19 differently.
“I’ve been at an institution that’s been supportive of its full-time professional staff working remotely, but I have colleagues around the country who have been told for the last nine months that they need to be in their facilities, because that is what they are supposed to do as student affairs professionals,” Stephenson says.
She also cites recent news articles referring to “a mass exodus” of employees from higher education — suggesting that, going forward, campus recreation leaders might need to dig a little deeper within themselves in order to retain both student and professional staff.
“To support my staff — especially in the last 18 months — my role as a human was more important than my role as a supervisor,” Stephenson says. “When we lead as human beings first, we take care of ourselves, and we take better care of our staff. Then they can make wise choices to balance their work and personal lives, they are less likely to burn out and, hopefully, they remember what inspires them in doing their work.”
Indeed, maintaining a positive work environment, even in challenging times, can make a big difference in staff dynamics and behavior. “It’s just been nice to be around professional staff and students again,” says Valdez, who arrived at Ohio State in August 2020 after earning her undergraduate degree in sports and exercise science at the University of Central Florida. “We all know what the situation is, and we also all want to work with each other. So whatever other changes or adaptations we need to make, we’re going to make them. Acquainting and reacquainting ourselves with one another this year has been really fun.”
And in the end, fun must remain integral to the campus recreation experience. “This is a great place to be on campus, it’s a great place to work, and it’s a great place where students can come and let go of everything,” Stephenson says. “And all of that will continue. We just need the opportunity for students to feel comfortable and to get back to living — back to socializing and interacting with other human beings, face to face.”