Students in high school and university are often encouraged to work during the summer or after class to gain practical experience, make money, expand their networks, and thereby increase their chances of finding a “real” job later. While this seems to be common sense, a new IZA Discussion Paper finds that work experience in a student’s CV does not help at all – it may even reduce the chances to get a job interview!
What was your motivation behind this paper?
Stijn Baert: In many OECD countries, paid work by students during the summer or academic year is the norm for a majority of youngsters in secondary and tertiary education. From society’s point of view, student employment provides a flexible source of labor but may crowd out regular work. From the individual perspective, income from student work may help satisfy consumption and investment aspirations.
However, students’ work decisions may also have long-term effects on later labor market outcomes. Therefore, the question is whether providing general incentives for combining studying and working – as is increasingly done by many OECD countries – is a good policy orientation. Gaining some deeper understanding of whether, why and when student employment contributes to favorable later labor market outcomes is necessary to answer this question in a proper way.
Hasn’t this been researched before? What’s new about your study?
For most of the former studies on student work and later employment outcomes, it is doubtful whether their results can be given a causal interpretation. This is due to the fact they had to rely on survey and administrative data. Their results may thus reflect differences in ability or motivation, which are unobservable to the researcher but may influence both the probability of student work experience and the probability of later labor market success. Our experimental setup allows us to study the outcomes for completely comparable job candidates with and without student work experience.
Tell us more about your experimental setup…
We sent out 1008 fictitious job applications to real vacancies in Flanders, the Northern part of Belgium. We applied for the occupations of operator, administrative clerk, lab analyst and management assistant. To each selected vacancy, four applications of male job candidates were sent. These applications, consisting of a CV and a motivation letter, were equal in terms of job relevant characteristics. The only thing that differed was their student work experience. This characteristic was randomly assigned to our four application templates.
One candidate had no student work experience at all, one revealed student work unrelated to the field of study during the summer, one disclosed student work related to the field of study during the summer, and the last revealed student work unrelated to the field of study during the academic year. By monitoring the subsequent reactions from the employer side via e-mail or voice-mail, unequal treatment based on these various forms of student work experience could be identified.
1000+ applications sounds like a lot… How many hours did your team put in?
Getting unbiased results comes at a cost, indeed. I presume we invested between two and three man-months in the experimental data gathering.
What are your key findings?
Overall, we found no evidence of a positive or negative effect of mentioning student work experience on job candidates’ probability of receiving a positive call-back. However, we observed adverse effects for particular success rates for several subsamples of our data by education level, sector and contract characteristics. For instance, we found for those who applied for positions in the industrial sector that the chance on a positive reaction was reduced by one-fourth after mentioning former student work experience.
In addition, and surprisingly, it made no difference whether or not the graduate did his student work during the academic year (and thereby signaled that he was able to successfully manage a combination of study and work) nor did positive call-backs vary by whether students’ (summer) jobs were related to their field of study.
Why is it that employers don’t seem to value work experience?
Two economic theories are relevant in this respect: the Human Capital Theory and the Signalling Theory. Following the first theory, student work experience may have a positive or a negative effect on one’s human capital. On the one hand student work experience may yield relevant (hard and soft) skills, on the other hand it might be a struggle in realizing one’s educational potential.
Following the second theory, employers might (mis)perceive student work experience as a signal of work motivation but also as a lack of interest in one’s studies or as a signal of lower social background. Clearly, overall, negative aspects of student employment outweighed its positive aspects.
Could this be a “cultural thing” specific to the Flemish labor market or certain job types?
We measure the effects only for young, male candidates within the jobs posted in the database of the Public Employment Agency of Flanders. This limitation is, however, less acute in our design in comparison to former comparable – and well-published – experiments as we made the conscious choice to test both industry- and administration-oriented occupations with different skill levels. However, it is still possible that the effect of student work experience is more important in other occupations, in other countries, than those covered in this study.
Having said that, we are not aware of important cultural differences in the context of student work modalities between Belgium and other Western European countries. In Belgium, the dominance of summer jobs which are unrelated to the field of study (compared to other forms of student employment) is somewhat more pronounced than in other European countries, but this should not impact the generalizability of our results importantly.
So what is your recommendation for students? “Don’t work!”?
Not at all! As mentioned before, students have other good reasons than later labor market perspectives to accept student work. Earning money to spend or save would be an obvious reason. Also, we are only looking at the first step to get a job – the initial call-back after applying for a vacancy. Once you get a job, previous experience may help you succeed in a workplace setting and get promoted. This is food for further research!
How about yourself? Did you work when you were a student?
Haha… I did! I worked two summers as an administrative clerk at Eurotronics, a firm offering geospatial technologies, two summers as a candy seller at Kinepolis, a Belgian chain of movie theaters, and one summer as a host at the enrollments desk of Ghent University. Who knows how my career would have developed had I spent these summers studying or… partying.
Well, it seems those jobs haven’t hurt your career… Thanks for the interview!
Stijn Baert has been an IZA Research Affiliate since November 2013. He holds master’s degrees in Computer Science Engineering (2006) and in Economics (2008) and a PhD in Economics (2013) from Ghent University. Since 2008 he has worked as a teacher and researcher at this university, with stints as a visiting researcher at VU University Amsterdam and Aarhus University. His research focuses on discrimination and transitions in youth. He currently chairs the European Association of Young Economists.