September 4, 2008

Students are the most flexible employees ... right?

Okay, I have to admit that I frequently hear hiring managers in retail remark that students are the most flexible component of the workforce. But why would they say this?

Well, in theory, high school students are flexible as they can usually work weeknights and weekends. And for those in post-secondary, there is even more flexibility as students may have entire days where they do not have school.

However, we also live in a time where students are expected to do more and more. Not only have homework loads increased (case in point, the Toronto District School Board introduced board-wide limits on homework), but so to have extracurricular activities. In the fight to obtain scholarships and spots in highly competitive post-secondary programmes, more and more students are taking on additional activities outside of work and school.

I've brought up this topic today because I recently had a friend of mine ask me how his sister should fill in the availability section on an application form.

Often, I find that students feel the need to simply say they are available any time. For some, this might be the case, but if you're like me, it's not.

In fact, when I was in grade 12, I was managing two jobs, working on skits for the holiday assembly at school, and training for tennis. I was so busy that my family often only saw me for dinner on Sunday nights.

When I found my second job, on the application form I was honest and told them that I had a particular availability, but depending on how far in advance the schedule was done, I could accommodate both jobs.

I have to admit that I was worried that I wouldn't even get an interview due to my availability. However, not only did I get an interview, but I was offered the job. And for the three months that I juggled both jobs, I rarely had any problems with scheduling - mostly because the store preferred my availability because that meant I could work short 3-hour shifts.

True, this was a form of "exploitation" in that I wasn't working long enough to technically get a break, but the shifts worked in my schedule and I loved the people I usually worked with during these short shifts.

However, not everybody will have the same experience I did. In that case, it's good to be proactive and have a plan.

When confronted with the availability section of an application form, I tell students to be realistic about your time commitments. Sure, some students want 20-30 hours a week, but others might just be looking for about 10-15.

And don't think that stores just want the people who want to work 20-30 hours; often, they are the first ones to complain about not receiving enough shifts. In fact, some stores prefer to have students who want fewer hours since that gives them leeway when doing the weekly schedule.

I recommend looking at your personal schedule and seeing what works. Know that in retail, evenings and weekends tend to be the busiest times. If you can, make sure that you are available on Thursday and Friday nights, as well as at least one full day on the weekend.

But like I say, don't over-extend yourself. It's great to have a part-time job, but you want to be sure that you're working for a place that offers flexibility and doesn't expect that just because you are a student that you are free every night and every day on the weekend. There are always legitimate reasons for having reduced availability and do not be afraid to explain what it is.

In fact, the great thing about availability is that it's an easy topic that you can start talking about with a potential manager.

For example, when dropping off your application, you can let the manager know that you've enclosed a resume and cover letter, as well as a completed application form detailing your availability. In most cases, the manager will look at your availability and if you time it right, you can let them know that the availability you've put on the form is due to reasons x, y, and z. Or, you can say that your availability is negotiable based on what the manager perceives to be the needs of the store. Then, you can take it from there and start highlighting your skills or experiences.

At the end of the day, what's really important is to remember that you don't need to over-extend yourself. Just because you're working doesn't mean you cannot have balance in your life.

Besides, when you are a student, there are so many things going on that you might want to be a part of - you have your whole life to work, but some of these opportunities may only come around once.

Good luck!

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