by Micah Wilkins, Editor-in-Chief
It was caused by what Scott Fair calls the “perfect storm.”
Low enrollment. The absence of key players. Office oversight.
This semester, several crucial work crews on campus are significantly short-staffed. Dining has only 13 students on the crew, while its ideal crew size is 24 students. The four Building Services, or Heavy Duty, crews last year had 32 to 34 students, but this semester, this number has dropped to 20, despite the fact that they are cleaning the same amount of square footage.
“It’s never been this severe,” said Fair, who supervises the Academic Building Services subcrew.
This lack of student crew members has negatively impacted the operations of Building Services in particular.
“We’re doing an injustice to the residence halls,” said Thom Wilder, who supervises the cleaning of the dorms. “We have to clean bathrooms in a hurry. We’re leaving three or four nasty showers that I go home and think about and think ‘Man, those showers are filthy.’ I don’t want my crew to be looked down upon for not doing the fullness of their job, because it’s only two people working. I’m making them work as hard as they can.”
Sodexo is able to supplement fewer workers by hiring additional students with work contracts, but these workers are less consistent, as they are not obligated to work.
“When school gets tough they just quit and it’s difficult to replace people,” said Director of Food Services Brian O’Loughlin. “Come finals time people just don’t show up.”
A multitude of factors have contributed to these crew shortages. According to Dean of Work Ian Robertson, the main issue is low enrollment. On the first day of the semester, the student headcount was 766 according to the Office of Advancement, whereas our target enrollment is around 850. Since the beginning of this school year the college has lost roughly 100 students.
“A decrease in student numbers can affect all crews,” Robertson said.
In the past, when enrollment has been high, work crews have grown, and entirely new crews have been created. However, when the number of students decreases, problems arise.
“One has to either eliminate those crews or severely reduce those crews,” Robertson said.
The supervisors of Dining and Heavy Duty all feel strongly that their crews are essential to the operations of the college.
“We’ve gotta get the basics done,” said Wilder. “And then we can be entrusted to have all these other fancy crews. These crews are necessary and do a lot for the campus, but if you’re not providing the basics, everything on top of that is wriggly.”
The college has grown substantially in recent years. However, in the past, we have operated the school on a much smaller work force.
“Believe me, we’ve got more than enough people to run this college,” O’Loughlin said.
However, the minimum target numbers for certain necessary crews were not being met at the start of this semester. When students request to switch crews mid-year, Fair, Wilder and O’Loughlin all check the box on the request form that reads: “Willing to release this worker only if a replacement is provided.” This semester, however, several replacements were not provided on these crews. Fair let go of three students last semester, and was provided with only one new worker.
“When the semester changes, there’s always been bodies there to take their place,” Fair said. “I’m not sure why that didn’t happen this time.”
According to Ellen Graves, Director of Work Learning and Programs, around 90 students requested to change crews in between the Fall and Spring semester (many of whom requested to move off of Dining and Heavy Duty), and most were awarded their prefered crews.
“For us in the WPO, we struggle because we have to provide the workforce that supports the community and we have to balance student needs and desires,” Graves said. “I didn’t really understand how tight of a semester it was going to be.”
When the crew assignments were completed for the spring semester, the Work Program Office thought that every crew had their optimum number of students, but this, according to Robertson, was not the case.
“We have to make sure that those [crews that maintain the day-to-day operations of the college] are the first crews that are populated, but we didn’t do as good of a job of that this semester as we have in the past,” Robertson said. “We’ve got to do a better job and make sure we don’t make any mistakes.”
This past summer, Karen Huntley, who played a crucial role in the Work Program Office for 12 years, left her post.
“She had an intuitive feel for where people needed to be,” Fair said. “When we lost her we lost something really important. You don’t replace 12 years of experience over night.”
For the time being, several short-term solutions have been put into place to supplement lack of student workers. The Heavy Duty crews have been provided with several students with five-hour work contracts. And so far this semester, when students need to be reassigned to a different crew, they have been placed on either Dining or Heavy Duty.
As for long-term solutions, the Work Program Office plans to be more careful in the future when assigning students to crews.
“It won’t happen again,” Robertson said.
Robertson is also looking into the idea of involving more student input when assigning students to crews. At Blackburn College, another work college in Illinois, the work program is student-managed.
Currently, there is a committee that decides day student work contracts which includes student involvement, and Robertson is exploring the possibility of implementing a similar model for residential students’ crew assignments.
“Perhaps we should get a student committee to do the placement of everybody,” he said. “Are there other ways of creating a more inclusive, a democratic way of assigning students [to crews]? Is there a way of incorporating representation from more than just the WPO, with perhaps some more student participation?”