The Casual Employment of Higher Education Students in the Hospitality Sector: contributing to local labour markets?

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This month’s guest blog is written by Dr Hilary Drew, Associate Head of Department – Partnerships (BIM) at UWE Bristol.

Over the last decade, many of us at UWE Bristol will have witnessed a growing number of our students working part-time, or even full-time, alongside their studies.  Given the number of bars and restaurants in Bristol, and other university cities, it will come as no surprise that the majority of students tend to find jobs in the hospitality sector.  Despite this increase in working students, surprisingly, there is little UK research from the past decade focusing on the casual employment of higher education students in the sector.

Together with researchers from Cardiff Metropolitan University, Hilary Drew and Felix Ritchie from UWE Bristol were interested in finding out more about the contribution made by students to local labour markets. Since the 1990s, the hospitality industry has been increasingly characterised by casual forms of employment.  These kinds of jobs are attractive to students and, as previous research has argued, this leads to increased competition for work with non-students. We were very interested in the impact this competition had on opportunities for low-skilled local workers seeking jobs in hospitality, as well as for our students.

Interestingly, the research we conducted found an opposite effect on local labour markets than reported in previous research.  Our findings suggested that, rather than replacing local low-skilled workers, hospitality employers value student workers for their flexibility. Therefore, employers tend to employ both students and non-students, in order to complement each other, particularly with reference to working time preferences.  Having said this, we found evidence that employers pay more attention to the welfare and needs of non-student workers, in order to protect their core of full-time and permanent part-time staff.

Importantly, our study shows that student employees can, and frequently do, provide long-term commitment to employers, as the relationship is viewed as having a specific shelf life of 3-4 years (the length of an undergraduate degree). We found evidence of both loyalty and satisfaction on both sides and, therefore, our findings contradict the usual view of student work as transitory within the hospitality industry.

Many critics have argued that term-time working presents a specific challenge for students in that they struggle to manage the commitments of work, study and – possibly! – a busy social life.  We were also interested in whether or not this was true, particularly as, at UWE, we are committed to supporting our students to develop skills that will make them future-ready, ambitious and innovative.  Students in our sample were valued by employers for their particular skill sets, as well as for their flexibility.  Conversely, we found that students reported valuing their working experience as something which would benefit them for their further career. This is very much supported by other previous studies, which also suggest that student employment contributes to students’ own development, especially around helping to improve time management and communication skills. working, the obvious issue with our research is that it was carried out prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, especially since hospitality was the sector arguably hardest hit by Covid.  With long periods of lockdown, and then restrictions placed on social contact, bars and restaurants were forced to close down – many permanently – and high numbers of employees were furloughed or made redundant.

Although the sector is slowly rebuilding itself, there has been a marked shrinkage in jobs, and the effect that this has had on competition between students and local non-student workers is, as yet unknown. In addition, the opportunities provided by the hospitality sector to help students build up valuable employability skills have also been removed or, at the very least, damaged by the pandemic.

Thus, our aim is to revisit our research post-pandemic over the coming months, to find out what has changed. In particular, we want to know if there have been any changes to the way in which employers treat student and non-student workers.  We’re also keen to expand our participant sample, to look at what’s going on in some other university cities.   Moreover, we hope to find evidence of a resurgence of work opportunities for our future students in hospitality as the sector begins to recover.

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