There is an interesting discussion going on in the comment section of a Cost of College blog post. The basic advice of the post was “Advice to college students: Get a job! (But don’t slack off on studying.)”
Both CSProfMom and I have been arguing with the author that some jobs are valuable to STEM students, but that others waste their time without providing any benefit to their eventually getting a decent job in their field.
Employers in technical fields want their employees to have the appropriate technical and professional skills, which they generally measure by education and relevant prior work experience. Time spent flipping burgers or making cappuccino does not add anything to an engineering student’s resume, other than a fairly trivial “shows up for work,” which does not distinguish among students who have had the work ethic needed to finish an engineering degree.
What students need is evidence that they can do the work that the company needs done. Technical internships are one excellent way to show this, as are summer research experiences (like the NSF REU program) and senior theses or capstone projects supervised by faculty. Spending 20–30 hours a week at a minimum-wage job, as many students need to do in order to pay tuition, cuts into the ability of students to get into these career-building opportunities, both because they lack the time and because the long hours spent working instead of studying lower their grades and make it harder for them to get into the competitive programs that would benefit them most.
CSProfMom summarized the problem well:
I think “any work at all” is great advice for teens from wealthy leafy suburbs who are heading to Trinity or Oberlin and who have never worked at anything save some babysitting or lifeguarding. A few hours a week of burger flipping is good for those kids and isn’t going to hurt their grades. But when you have kids who are already starting behind because of their background, who are working 30 to 40 hours a week at low-level jobs, often alongside co-workers who are not good influences (and that was very much my experience—my co-workers were doing and selling drugs on the side), for employers who could care less that they have school obligations, you have a problem. And when employers tell us after reviewing student resumes that they are surprised at their lack of technical work experience, as happened last week, then you doubly have a problem. The reality is that technical employers really don’t care about work experience as a gas station attendant. They want students with proven skills in technical areas, who have shown they can work in a technical environment. My students largely do not have that, and thus they are at a severe disadvantage in the job market.
The bottom line is that students should be seeking relevant work experience in their field, not just arbitrary jobs.
CSProfMom also expressed the inherent inequality of the current system:
My students would have a much better shot at the best jobs if they didn’t have to work 30 hours as security guards or shelf stockers. This is a subtle, or maybe even not so subtle, way that inequality is increased.