Enhancing Leadership Learning During the Student Employment Experience

Leveraging the platform of employment to assist students in gaining essential knowledge, skills, and leadership ability is a key role for higher education professionals. The ability to recognize leadership outcomes, use them to attract and teach students, and then collect measurable results for assessment is a strategy that offers benefits to students and institutions alike.

Identifying leadership outcomes is an essential aspect of recruiting students in a competitive marketplace, and if student affairs educators do not make overt the leadership outcomes embedded in the soft skills, the practical application is less meaningful. Top employment programs help students cognitively understand critical leadership outcomes desired by employers and implement them through their high-impact on-campus employment experiences. 

Employees to Leaders 

That model for higher education institutions now includes a recruitment process that clearly communicates the leadership development benefits of working on a campus. As university employers navigate the employment process of hiring, training, supervising, and evaluating, it’s never been more important to be able to also identify leadership outcomes, teach students those concepts, and be able to measure those outcomes. 

There are plenty of examples out there. California State University–Northridge focuses on analytical reading and expository writing, critical thinking, mathematics, and oral communication. The University of Texas–El Paso includes on-campus student employment as one of 10 high-impact engagement outcomes. The University of British Columbia’s student affairs’ learning outcomes are knowledge acquisition, integration, and application; multicultural competence; leadership; communication skills; and civic engagement and humanitarianism. The National Association of Colleges and Employers has also developed a set of core competencies that includes career management, leadership, professionalism and work ethic, and digital technology. 

University departments would be remiss not to participate in student employment and career fairs where they can market the benefits and outcomes of positions; divisions can use virtual bulletin boards, social messaging, and streaming video to focus on learning outcomes. Ideally, the goal is to turn the entire conversation to learning, rather than employment. 

So that students can be assured they’ll learn these outcomes, student affairs professionals at Weber State University are using student testimonials across multiple platforms like print, video, and social media, and through a Students of Weber campaign that profiles the stories and experiences of individual students. At Valencia College, an in-depth leadership series is part of the employment experience for students working in the student affairs division. 

After leadership outcomes are implemented into the employment schematic it becomes imperative that students actually develop the leadership skills they expect have been embedded into their employment experiences. Whether done discreetly or intentionally, success depends on students reaching those leadership learning goals. Workshops, mentoring programs, core and elective courses, staff meetings, and certification programs are all seen as effective tools; even the gamification of attaining learning outcomes has seen success. Ensuring that supervisors have access to and the skills to implement these tools is essential to seeing that a comprehensive and effective process is in place. 

With leadership outcomes having been identified, and then embedded into the student employment experience, what follows is the important part of implementing the tools for assessing and measuring the attainment of skills. In ACUI’s book Enhancing Student Learning through College Employment, chapter author Jessica Hickmott said it best: “Through measuring student performance and evaluating students’ learning and development, these opportunities can be enhanced to help students achieve higher levels of academic success.”  

Supervisors evaluating student learning have the opportunity to nurture individual success while acting as coaches and teachers, and at the same time these individual evaluations come into play as informing the effectiveness of the overall organization in which students are employed. Leading by example, the give and take of feedback sessions, pre- and post-employment testing, formal evaluations, and other direct methods for identifying learning outcomes can serve as opportunities for identifying student success and organizational improvement. These efforts and tools not only provide meaningful learning and engagement opportunities for students, but they can also support institutional retention and career-readiness goals. 

Higher education institutions have developed an array of methods for helping student employees acquire the leadership skills associated with their employment. Onboarding programs and student employment handbooks, mentoring programs led by seasoned student employees, and full-blown student success programs like Iowa GROW at the University of Iowa and the Illinois Leadership Center at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign are each pieces in a puzzle put together to make student employment a high impact experience that connects to learning beyond the classroom. The relative simplicity of these programs is a mark of their success. For example, Iowa GROW requires supervisors to simply report on a conversation with students twice per year by asking four questions of the students. 

Weber State University 

Weber State University is a public university with 30,000 students, primarily undergraduates, where 85% of the students work full- or part-time, and nearly 60% are working more than 20 hours per week. One-third of the students are married and one-third have children. With core themes of access, learning, and community, Weber’s employment program ties closely to all three, but particularly toward learning and community. 

Access is addressed through a myriad of programs, specifically in student affairs, that employ students, many of whom work in the K-12 schools as tutors, mentors, and advocates. The student affairs division specifically states objectives, strategies, and initiatives directly related to student employment, and metrics used to measure success are clearly presented. These strategic plans are shared widely and posted to the student affairs’ web site. 

One committee within student affairs, the student employment committee, develops specific annual initiatives tied to student employment. Currently, those initiatives include: 

  • Producing a report of current division student employee training programs to refine centralized training and begin initial planning for a common division curriculum and learning outcomes for student employees (in additional to the central training provided). 
  • Developing a marketing campaign for on-campus student employment. 
  • Increasing the support provided for student employee supervisors. 
  • Ensuring relevant training is available to student employees throughout the year. 

One charge of the committee is to collaborate with the larger career fair that, over time, has been used to increase the number of students exposed to open positions, assist in diversifying the applicant pool, and to afford departments the benefit of being able to hire further in advance of actual employment. Each of these results has been viewed as a benefit to both the institution and individual students. 

Two programs the committee undertakes that are designed, implemented, and assessed with respect to leadership learning outcomes are a student employment training program, the Get Student Employment Training (GetSET), and a unique funding program that aids student employment opportunities called the 50/50 student employment funding program. 

More than 200 students each year attend the fall employment training program GetSET, along with supervisors, all of whom register through the school’s Canvas learning management system. Initiated in 2009, the program provides an opportunity for departments within student affairs (and a few areas in other divisions) to maximize learning and development opportunities for student employees in order to positively contribute to their learning, well-being, and success. 

The interactive event for student employees has been designed to educate student employees in student affairs learning outcomes with a focus on customer service. It includes an initial orientation training, a follow-up training the following semester leveraging existing programs, and an optional challenge course that requires a combination of creativity, physical involvement, teamwork skills, and individual commitment. The program gives students exposure to leadership concepts, specifies learning outcomes, communicates the latest data on employers’ needs, and explains how students can articulate the different skills they’ve developed during employment. 

GetSET offers unique program tracks developed by faculty and staff for new, returning, and supervisory students. This year, the four-hour program focused on a specific learning outcome, that “student employees will be able to demonstrate an understanding of how racial, cultural, and physical characteristics, among other aspects, can influence personal and professional interactions in positive and negative ways unless consciously and deliberately addressed.” 

It also included a keynote speaker on campus safety and bystander prevention, education sessions involving cultural competency, team building, workplace communication, and critical thinking. Specific departments follow up with additional sessions more tailored for their specific employment needs and goals, but GetSET sessions focus on learning outcomes, leadership concepts, and student engagement. A virtual follow-up program, GetSET Online, is offered for continuing the development of leadership skills and for submitting 250-word reflections on their experiences in the program and how those experiences may have enhanced their leadership skills. 

The GetSET program also tracks directly to the learning outcomes of the 50/50 Student Employment Program and to the student affairs division’s outcomes, as a whole, and was designed to promote the creation of new, on-campus student jobs to allow more opportunities for students to work on campus. New positions are intended to help students gain meaningful work experience and provide a support system of faculty and staff that aids in student retention. 

The program works by providing up to 50% of an hourly wage, up to $4.50 per hour ($9/hour minimum), to qualifying positions. Departments seeking a position in the program must meet specific standards: must be a new position, does not exceed 20 hours each week, and must provide meaningful work and allow for “the development of skills in areas of customer service, teamwork, global diversity, and communication; position supports retention and student success efforts of the university.” Students seeking to fill these positions must meet some specific requirements to qualify for funding. Those include at least a 2.0 grade point average, minimum credit hours of 12 hours per semester (six during summer), and enrollment as an undergraduate seeking their first degree. It’s open to all resident, non-resident, and international students. 

The 50/50 program was launched in 2011 as a way to increase the number of student jobs on-campus, with funding from both academic affairs and student affairs and a way to improve learning, retention, and persistence to graduation by providing students with an opportunity to earn money for college, enhance job skills with additional training, and create meaningful associations with faculty, staff, and other students. It’s unique in that it’s led by the career services department, where a video of program basics can be found, then funded and sponsored by academic affairs and student affairs, and operationalized with the assistance of human resources and payroll staff. 

The Role of the College Union 

It’s clear that leadership experiences can be intentionally and purposefully integrated into the employment experience. It can begin with something as basic as a job description that denotes specific, concrete experiences that will result in learning through employment. With the standardization of employment programs with a focus on key employability concepts, those leadership experiences can become systemic to the process, particularly if there is a methodology for overseeing the process, like a committee, team, or manager. This type of standardization presents a substantial way to build community across the institution as the conversation becomes part of the organization’s ethos and culture, in turn providing mutual benefits to individuals and
the institution. 

Organizational culture is powerful, so focusing on leadership learning strengthens ties between student and institutional outcomes can place the student union as a central leader in cultural stability and becomes relevant to a broader institutional strategic plan and vision. Student employment plans including overt leadership experiences can help union professionals build community widely at their institutions. 

Editor’s Note 
This article was adapted from: 

Perozzi, B. (2019). Leadership Development Through Transforming the Student Employment Process. In Peck, A. & Callahan, K. (Eds.). Leadership Development through Campus Employment. New Directions in Student Leadership, Summer, Issue 162. 

National Association of Colleges and Employees Career Readiness Competencies

Critical Thinking/Problem Solving 

Exercise sound reasoning to analyze issues, make decisions, and overcome problems. The individual is able to obtain, interpret, and use knowledge, facts, and data in this process, and may demonstrate originality and inventiveness. 

Oral/Written Communications 

Articulate thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively in written and oral forms to persons inside and outside of the organization. The individual has public speaking skills; is able to express ideas to others; and can write/edit memos, letters, and complex technical reports clearly and effectively. 


Build collaborative relationships with colleagues and customers representing diverse cultures, races, ages, genders, religions, lifestyles, and viewpoints. The individual is able to work within a team structure, and can negotiate and manage conflict. 

Digital Technology 

Leverage existing digital technologies ethically and efficiently to solve problems, complete tasks, and accomplish goals. The individual demonstrates effective adaptability to new and emerging technologies. 


Leverage the strengths of others to achieve common goals, and use interpersonal skills to coach and develop others. The individual is able to assess and manage his/her emotions and those of others; use empathetic skills to guide and motivate; and organize, prioritize, and delegate work. 

Professionalism/Work Ethic 

Demonstrate personal accountability and effective work habits, e.g., punctuality, working productively with others, and time workload management, and understand the impact of non-verbal communication on professional work image. The individual demonstrates integrity and ethical behavior, acts responsibly with the interests of the larger community in mind, and is able to learn from his/her mistakes. 

Career Management 

Identify and articulate one’s skills, strengths, knowledge, and experiences relevant to the position desired and career goals, and identify areas necessary for professional growth. The individual is able to navigate and explore job options, understands and can take the steps necessary to pursue opportunities, and understands how to self-advocate for opportunities in the workplace. 

Global/Intercultural Fluency 

Value, respect, and learn from diverse cultures, races, ages, genders, sexual orientations, and religions. The individual demonstrates, openness, inclusiveness, sensitivity, and the ability to interact respectfully with all people and understand individuals’ differences.