A Study of College Students’ Summer Employment Priorities

January 25, 2024, Department, by Megan Owens, Ph.D., and Michael. A. Mulvaney, Ph.D.

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Public park and recreation agencies rely heavily on seasonal staff to support their operations. Estimates suggest the number of seasonal staff hired by these agencies is in the millions, with a large percentage of these seasonal positions being filled by young adults ages 18 to 25. The competition for this finite labor force has increased in recent years, with many recreation agencies investing significant time and resources into recruiting and retaining workers in this age bracket. Colleges and universities represent a prime marketplace for the recruitment and selection of these seasonal staff. Research investigating the summer employment priorities of these students appears to have merit as agencies strive to provide those “coming of age” experiences for this group.

In response to this need, a study of college student summer employment priorities was conducted. A sample of 576 college students from two midwestern universities completed an online survey during the late summer/early fall season of 2022. Full-time, part-time, graduate and undergraduate students across a variety of academic majors participated in the study. Students were asked to reflect on their 2022 summer experience when answering the questions presented in the online survey. In particular, the study sought to address the following questions:

  • What was the frequency of summer employment for college students?
  • What type of employment, if any, were college students participating in during the summer season?
  • Where did students learn about their summer employment and when did they typically secure their employment experience?
  • What were the most important priorities students looked for when securing summer employment?

Are College Students Working in the Summer?

Nearly 90 percent of college students reported working in some capacity during the summer season. More specifically, 89.2 percent of students indicated they worked, with 40.5 percent working one job totaling 32 to 40 hours per week, 35.8 percent working a part-time job, and 12.9 percent working two or more part-time jobs. Interestingly, almost 40 percent of students also indicated volunteering at least a few hours during the summer months as well.

Types of Employment Students Seek

Clearly, college students are securing employment during the summer months, but where are they working? According to the survey results, 36.9 percent of students worked in retail (14.6 percent) or food service (22.3 percent) sectors. Slightly more than 20 percent of students secured employment in recreation industries, including summer camps (7.9 percent), outdoor recreation (4.6 percent), community recreation (3.7 percent), athletics/coaching/officiating (3.5 percent) or tourism/hospitality (0.9 percent). A small percentage indicated they were employed in operations and labor-type employment with 2.6 percent employed in construction and 1.5 percent in building and grounds positions.

How Students Learn About Employment Opportunities

Students were asked to share how they learned about opportunities with their summer employer. While 25.7 percent of students were aware of opportunities due to their previous employment, 41 percent relied on networking — from friends (21.6 percent), family (14.3 percent) or academic departments (5.1 percent). The next most popular recruitment source was Indeed.com, where 11.2 percent of students discovered their summer employment options.

The study indicated 41.1 percent of students returned to the same job they had secured the previous summer. Meanwhile, 28.5 percent of students secured a new job and did so during the months of April and May, while another 10.8 percent accepted their summer positions in February or March.

What Students Are Looking for in Their Summer Employment Experience

Finally, students were presented with 15 personal priorities and asked to indicate the influence each of these had on their final employment decisions. The 15 priority areas were categorized into four domains: flexible and fun working environments, career preparation/development, alignment with personal interests and values, and pragmatic needs. For each of the 15 influences, students were asked to indicate whether it was a “high priority,” “somewhat of a priority” or “low priority.”

Collectively, the pragmatic needs received the highest number of students rating them as a “high priority.” The highest priority in this domain was the ability to generally be paid for work (83 percent rated it as a “high priority”) followed by the job being located near their home (64 percent rated it as a “high priority”). The next highest domain was the flexible and fun working environment priorities with flexible work schedules (68 percent) being the highest priority within this domain.

Putting It All Together

The data indicates 9 out of 10 college students are seeking and securing summer employment experiences and, in some cases, are working multiple jobs. These students are leaning heavily on personal networks of friends, family, previous employers and academic institutions to learn about summer employment opportunities. Given the highly networked field of recreation, these findings appear to present an opportunity for agencies to leverage these relationships and networks to help get the word out to these students — perhaps by encouraging current employees to share their experiences with friends via referral incentives or speaking/advocating to parents during information sessions at the start of youth programs about the positive impact these employment opportunities can have on an individual.

Only about 2 out of 10 students are seeking employment in recreation industries. To put it another way, there is an opportunity to introduce 8 out of 10 students to the great experiences within the recreation sector. The study’s findings may provide insight into how to better recruit students. Most community recreation employment opportunities would serve their interest in finding a job near their home. Next, the second most prioritized domain identified by students was jobs that provided a fun and flexible working environment. Considering how to market employment opportunities, roles that have flexible work schedules, are fun and allow for time to see family seem to align with students’ interests.

Megan Owens, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the Western Illinois University Department of Recreation, Park, Tourism, and Hospitality. Michael. A. Mulvaney, Ph.D., is a Professor at the Illinois State University School of Kinesiology and Recreation.