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Two young employees working together in grocery store.

Colleges and universities can help students apply the human skills they’ve learned from summer work experiences.

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SEATTLE—While a significant number of students come into college with prior work experiences, fewer are able to translate those skills into the language of employers.

Two researchers from the University of Pittsburgh conducted a qualitative study on first-year students’ summer work experiences and how summer work benefits skill development, networking and career clarity.

The research, presented during a conference session at the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition Annual Conference in Seattle, finds opportunities for higher education professionals to step in and guide students to help meet future career goals.

The background: Around one-third (36.6 percent) of 16- to 19-year-olds have summer work experiences, according to 2021 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The largest number of teens held jobs in accommodation and food services (36.2 percent) and in retail (21.3 percent).

Higher education is a classed organization, which means it teaches, values and rewards behaviors and social structures from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, explained Max Schuster, associate professor of higher education at Pitt.

These values are reflected not only by the institution but by the students who occupy them, through academic achievement or even retention.

The study: Schuster and his co-researcher, Glen Edward, program coordinator for new student programs at Pitt, interviewed 64 first-year students to understand their summer 2022 work experience and how it connects to core competencies for working professionals.

The greatest share of students held a seasonal role (31 percent) such as lifeguard or camp counselor, 22 percent worked in food service, 16 percent worked retail and customer service, and 30 percent had a unique role (i.e., a role that was not replicated across the student sample). One student interviewed did not have a paid summer job but instead focused on personal development and technical skills, so that individual was also included in the study.

Throughout the interviews, students shared five major themes:

  1. Skill development and personal growth. Students said they gained practical skills (both technical and human) relevant to their fields of interest.
  2. Enhanced social and communication skills. Students who worked in customer service roles, in particular, said they learned enhanced communication skills, how to engage with diverse populations and how to foster teamwork among colleagues.
  3. Understanding of professional work environments. Students gained firsthand experience with norms and expectations of work culture. They also gained networks and relationships that could benefit them for future career opportunities.
  4. Impact on future career choices. Most students expressed they now know what they don’t want, but the work experience still allowed for job exploration.
  5. Increased confidence and independence. As students gained responsibilities, they also grew in their feelings of independence and accountability.

The application: One of the key findings of the research was that this interview was the first time most first-years had reflected on their summer work experience and how it could relate to their future career goals. Many said they took summer jobs to earn money or to support their families and did not consider skill-building to be part of the experience until they reflected on it with the researchers.

This creates an opportunity for higher education practitioners, with an emphasis on those who work in the first-year experience space, to:

  • Create moments for students to reflect on their lived experiences to create meaning and learning
  • Give students a language related to their work
  • Help them see how the skill-building they’re doing can be applied to future careers.

The research was conducted at the end of the academic year—the end of the first year of college for student participants—and these guided conversations could have benefited students more if they were conducted prior to the end of the term as they were looking for internships or developing résumés, noted the researchers.

Part of this work is validating that different types of work are valuable; that blue-collar experience is not worth less than white collar, for example, Schuster said. Instead of pushing students toward a new avenue of experiential learning, those in higher education can relate to the experiences students already hold.

Do you have a career prep tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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