Simple jobs for summer student
July 13, 2020 1:22 PM   Subscribe

How to be more effective with a summer student?

At the urging of a local college, I hired a summer student. I guess I should have done more checking. The student doesn't seem to have the skills or aptitude I need for them to be effective. I've only hired out of specific programs before. I've spent a lot of time trying to train them, but it's starting to really feel like a drain. They don't follow all the instructions, ask me every single day what they should be doing for work (in spite of having a project board) and I'm getting frustrated. I think my expectations are above what the student can do and I guess I should have not listened to the college and should have done more vetting specific to skills I need. I'm still trying to train them on basic things, like don't tell your boss to go find something in a folder, send me the link to the item so I can find it, don't send me emails that have "Link" or "Zoom" as the subject or I will never find it. I'll ask them to go research something and summarize the info and they will send me the link to the website, as if I want to go read it and then I have to tell them to go back and summarize it. They even do stuff like call me from a chat with a tech company when I've said to go research info and present it or they will sign me up for something when I've said don't do X until you have approval. I've tried getting them to read research articles and get quotes and to only use credible sources and next thing I know they are using quotes from the Community College of Outer Island You Have Never Heard Of, even when I gave examples of major institutions. I may also be over attributing what I was capable of, but I have hired students before and it wasn't like this, although I hired from specific programs before and not community college.

What are some simple things I could have a college student do? I think I'm probably giving them work that is too advanced and they need to be doing really simple stuff. I don't want to give up on them and, especially during COVID, I want to make sure students are getting help. But I need to get them to do very simple work, it seems. I had a lot of work experience and training before I even got to university or college and I went through a specialized program, so I am probably needing to really drop down expectations. So far, they've struggled with every single thing I've tried having them do. It's all remote because of COVID and I'm solo, so there's no answering phones or photocopying or anything like that. I have had multiple meetings and spent a lot of time mentoring them and sent them to videos and stuff too.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats to Work & Money (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Do you have any transcribing they can do? Text archives, audio or video media where you need a typed version? I'm not suggesting that they do actual digitizing as it sounds like their brain might melt, but having them provide the digital text could prove useful.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:36 PM on July 13, 2020

Knowing you're in Canada and putting your use of the term "community college" into that context, did you hire a student from a university transfer program rather than one in something like a business admin diploma program?
posted by blerghamot at 1:41 PM on July 13, 2020

Ummmm... what is it that you do? I mean, it's hard to know what the college student should do since you don't give any context.
posted by number9dream at 1:54 PM on July 13, 2020 [6 favorites]

I think this might be more about a student who doesn’t really want to put effort into the job than it is about a student who’s not qualified...what you outline are fairly common sense things and it sounds like you’ve also given clear directions. The one potential I can see is if the student is very nervous/anxious about pleasing you and not messing up, that’s why they keep “checking in” and such. Maybe sit down for one last attempt at a big talk about how part of work is taking responsibility for tasks and attempting to get it done without looking for guidance?
posted by sallybrown at 2:02 PM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I hired a 3rd to 4th year student from a four-year degree program at a community college.

I work in professional services and consulting. I had hoped the student could help with a lot of online marketing, development of blog posts, social media, newsletter, etc, but they really seem to struggle. I actually phoned the college internship and said (without fishing) that perhaps the student has an undiagnosed disability. I find they really seem to struggle with certain things and I hoped I might be able to better support them. I had set them on a project of just finding inspirational quotes or or citations and, even just now, they came back with a quote from a local competitor and had not even bothered to research the person they were quoting and couldn't tell me who they were or what company they work for.. I'm getting very frustrated, as I would think any senior in high school should be able to Google a source before they use it, especially if told to do so.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 2:02 PM on July 13, 2020

It isn't working out. Based on your description, you are not making unreasonable requests of your student worker, and you were pressured to hire by the college. Just call up the college and tell them it's not working out. You are under no obligation to continue to "employ" this student who isn't doing any work you need.

This has nothing to do with your instructions and needs, which are completely reasonable for a third year college student. It has to do with the individual student. Either the college didn't offer you enough guidance, or they sent you a dud. If you'd fire this student if they were an employee of yours, it's time to call the college.
posted by juniperesque at 2:13 PM on July 13, 2020 [9 favorites]

Oof, trying to guide an inexperienced student worker remotely sounds tough. Is this the sort of job where you'd expect them to be around in the office 9-5 (or other regular working hours) during non-COVID times? I wonder if at least some of these issues are just them not being able to manage their time while WFH and half-assing things in a hurry at the end.

How often do you speak to them one-on-one (either via video call, phone call or direct text/chat)? Would it be possible to bookend their day with quick 15-minute chats, like (you say) "Good morning! What's the plan for today?" and "Good afternoon/evening! How did today's tasks go?" to provide some structure in their day, and hopefully get them in the habit of setting their own tasks and being accountable for finishing them.
posted by btfreek at 2:15 PM on July 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

If you've just recently hired them, and you're not in an office with them, it doesn't seem to be unusual that they would ask you every day what they should be doing. I agree with btfreek in that you could start every day with a quick outline of what they should plan on for that day. When I was in college 99% of my job was photocopying, filing, answering phones. Without that, there's a lot of time to fill!

Can they work on graphics? A lot of college students I know are pretty proficient in Canva, for example.

It sounds to me like you need to be way more specific in the tasks you give them. Instead of "find inspirational quotes from credible sources", try "find inspirational quotes from". Or give them a specific topic to blog about. Ask for a one-sentence description of the website they've vetted.

Good luck.
posted by lyssabee at 2:22 PM on July 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

This might be too patronizing, but can you assign them a long-term research project that you just don’t actually use? Maybe they could run an online survey about a topic relevant to your field? Those are pretty straightforward to set up.

I mean, you can give them feedback and let them write about it on their resume...but you’re under no obligation to do anything with the report.
posted by tinymegalo at 6:29 PM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Have you talked with the intern about his or her goals for the internship and what he or she would like to get out of it? This info may help you determine if it’s a can’t or won’t situation, and may help you brainstorm tasks for the intern to do. Also have seen this person’s resume?

Having the intern take notes for the boss during meetings is a classic intern activity. Perhaps the intern could write you a memo advising how your organization could target its social media posts to college (age) students? It’s unclear exactly what you mean by solo in your OP but assuming you work mostly solo for a larger organization... Does your organization have an internal portal for its employees? Perhaps there’s something on there that would be relevant for the intern to read. Are there other interns you could connect your intern with at your org?
posted by oceano at 6:59 PM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

This sounds consistent with a student who hasn't had a job before. There's a lot of office cultural rules to learn, which is why internships are a thing.

If you haven't told them that they're not performing to expectations, do that. Tell them to take notes when you give them tasks if you don't actually see them doing it. You can also try assigning tasks in writing and then just refusing to accept the result and making them redo it if it doesn't meet the criteria. I know someone who straight up told summer students that her time is worth $$$ and their time is worth $, so if it takes them all day what it would take her half an hour to do, it still makes sense for them to do it. It's also fine to fire them after a couple "you are not performing" conversations - that is how some people learn, or maybe they can find a summer gig that suits them better.
posted by momus_window at 9:02 PM on July 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I guess the question is whether you want to try to spend time teaching them, with no particular benefit to yourself but possibly a benefit to them in the long run.

There are three possibilities for why they're not doing better: they don't really care and are just doing the minimum; they're learning disabled; or no one ever taught them any of the things that seem like common sense to us, because we've already learned them at one point or another.

If you want to teach them, it would probably be best to treat this internship purely as a remedial pedagogical exercise for them. They don't know how to evaluate sources? Assign them explicitly to go find X on 6 different websites. Then assign them to write down, for each website, its domain name; the website name; whether it has ads, and if so what kind; whether they think it exists for the purpose of making money; and why they came to that conclusion. If the website belongs to a business, assign them to write down what the business is, who the owners are, who their competitors are, how the business makes its money, and whether/how the business is related to yours. Then assign them to evaluate how well-known they think each website is; what reactions different types of people would have to seeing that X came from that website versus some specific model website; and why. Then assign them to explain why these things matter to someone in your business. Then assign them to explain why the sources they came up with earlier are not helpful to you. Then have them look for sources for some new X, and see how they do.

You ask them to send you a file and they send you a folder? Have them write down what steps you would have to follow to get the information you requested from what they sent ("click on folder; fugure out which file you actually need; click on file"). Tell them they are expecting you to do too many steps and to do the task again such that there's only one step for you to follow. Have them explain why it matters.

Etc. They don't know how to think about what you need and why you're having them do whatever task in the first place. They're not trained to think through other people's eyes or to look at the big picture. They might need every thought process spelled out for them and explicitly rehearsed.

I think you need to decide whether you're willing to view this as a kind of altruistic community service project, or whether you didn't have the time or inclination to do what this person's educational system seems never to have done. If you have the ability and inclination it might make a real difference to this kid in the longer run. It's also legitimate if you don't, or if you prefer to push back on the college.
posted by trig at 12:38 AM on July 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

(I should add that if you take this approach, you should have an explicit conversation with them about it at the outset so that you don't just seem like you're patronizing them or wasting their time. Tell them their work has been unsatisfactory and that you feel like they're missing a lot of fundamentals, and ask them if they would be willing to spend the remaining part of the internship focusing seriously on improving those skills.)
posted by trig at 2:36 AM on July 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

That sounds like "typical" placement student behaviour, i.e. as somebody commented above, a person who has not had a job before and did not have a chance to learn all the office-work related skills (source - I work in a university IT department and we sometimes get computing placement students - and often end up in a situation very similar to yours.). So your options are either to patiently coach/mentor said student and break the work down into very small chunks, give them loads of direction, be extremely clear about what the expectations are and make no assumptions about whether they "should" know anything. Or cut your losses.
posted by coffee_monster at 7:22 AM on July 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks. I talked to the college and it seems they weren't totally up front about the student's experience. I'm going to have to think of some very basic tasks. I'm just running my own small business and I hired a student because I needed help, not simply because I want to give back. I need them to help me generate value or else my time could have been going to something else. I will have to think of how to get them generating even the most basic value. I think they would have done better in a larger company where they just need someone to take notes, file, organize cupboards, and answer phones, not where I actually need them to be doing work I could bill out. Ugh. Thank you all.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 6:39 PM on July 14, 2020

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