Help wanted: The Commons’ student employee shortage

Hannah Vanderhooft – Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Sam Landstra

Last semester, Alex Brown flipped a burger at The Commons. Then, he flipped another. Then another. Then another. For Brown, a typical four-hour shift at Dordt University’s dining hall amounted to around 200 burgers flipped, even more students served, and even more dishes washed.

“That tears on your mind,” Brown, a sophomore, said. “The shifts in The Commons are very monotonous.”

So, at the end of the semester, Brown quit. Though The Commons pays its student employees a starting wage of $10.25 an hour, a dollar more than the starting pay of other work study positions, the deli at the Sioux Center Wal-Mart offered Brown higher pay and a less stressful work environment.

“It’s just a grind,” Brown said about his ten-hour work weeks at The Commons.

At Dordt University, students fill nearly 750 student employment positions, including jobs at the library, the mail room, and janitorial work. This semester at The Commons, 35 students are employed, though the dining hall typically employs 65 to 70. Like Brown, many students have tossed down the spatula and left, leaving The Commons shorthanded. 

According to Mindi Sneller, a student supervisor, the dining hall has struggled to fill its Monday, Wednesday, and Friday lunch shifts: “They’re willing to work, but they’re in class.”

Because of the shortage, The Commons’ “Action Stations,” which offer rice and burrito bowls, stir fry, wings, and more, have been run on a part-time basis this semester.

Though Dordt Dining has attempted to fill shifts with non-student, full-time employees, the nation’s labor shortage has added difficulty to their recruitment.

Sneller knows The Commons is difficult to work at. The customer service-based work does not allow students to do homework or listen to music: “What students don’t realize is that they’re going to need to interact with people every day at their jobs… that’s customer service.”

Despite his leaving, Brown said Sneller was “a pleasure to work with” and that “[The Commons staff] really do try and make it enjoyable.”

Kyle Achterhoff, director of student employment, has worked at Dordt since the 2020 Fall Semester. Achterhoff has taken student employment, formerly known as “work study,” in a different direction. He’s raised the  minimum starting wage for student employees from $8.75 an hour to $9.00 an hour and implemented yearly incentives for students to stay in their positions, including a $0.50 raise per year. According to Achterhoff, the university has seen a positive shift in students’ work and attitudes. 

“This is to incentivize students to stay in the same position for a longer amount of time” Achterhoff said. “We don’t want to limit them, but we want them to understand there’s a benefit by getting experience in doing something over and over.” 

Achterhoff was also responsible for raising the starting pay at The Commons by one dollar. 

“It’s to acknowledge the hard work they do and to encourage them to stay in their position.”

Still, though student employment has increased in a number of departments since Achterhoff’s hiring, The Commons has struggled to retain workers. 

According to Brown, students won’t fill The Commons’ worker shortage until the new dining hall is built after 2024, given the current dining hall’s poor reputation: “Everybody knows that’s the worst job.”

On a Tuesday night at The Commons, around a half dozen students served paninis and noodle bowls at the Action Station. Despite the shortage, student employees have pushed to keep the fixture operational. As dinees filter through the lines, the workers talk with each other, passing the time.

“Relationships,” Brown said. “That makes it go by a lot faster.”

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