Students used to head abroad for summer work – Covid took that away

From part-time gigs to summer jobs - students’ work patterns have changed

By 2016 about 20%  of students had a part-time job,  well below the pre-2008 peak. Photograph: iStock

By 2016 about 20% of students had a part-time job, well below the pre-2008 peak. Photograph: iStock

 

In the UK it is normal for students to study in cities distant from home, and then return to see their families in the summer. A much higher proportion of Irish students attend college in their home cities, and live in their family home – traditionally many have used their college summers to seek work experience abroad.

The British model is a much more expensive one and, compared to Ireland, a higher proportion of UK expenditure on higher education goes on accommodating students, and a lower share on actual tuition. An outcome of this higher-cost model is a lower share of the young population getting a college education than in Ireland. But another side-effect is that fewer of their students seek experience in summer jobs abroad.

Summer work experience, particularly abroad, is an education in itself

When I was in university, most students spent the summer break in a job to earn their fees and cover their rent and other living expenses for the academic year. In the late 1960s, about a third of students went to the US on J1 visas, working in bars or as camp counsellors. Others went to Britain, to can peas or work on building sites. With college terms beginning only in October, a lucky few trod grapes in France during the wine harvest. In my day, holding a part-time job in term-time was much less common than it has become – the summer job was the big earner.

Until Covid hit, there continued to be a large exodus every summer of students to work overseas, but the pattern has changed over the last half century. In recent years, few students have managed to earn enough in summer work abroad to support themselves through the rest of the year. Where jobs proved elusive or paid badly, some students have had to be bailed out by their parents. Today, pay rates for comparable student jobs are higher in Ireland than in many alternative labour markets. For students who want to save serious money, the best way to do so today is to live at home with their parents and take a summer job in Ireland.

However, the financial benefits of working abroad for the summer have always been secondary to the main purpose – enjoying an adventure in a different culture and learning to survive on one’s own. Summer work experience, particularly abroad, is an education in itself, an opportunity to learn about different ways of life and different societies. For economics students, it offers an excellent practical introduction to labour economics, to learn on the job about minimum wages, tax and welfare systems.

ESRI research shows that people who have worked abroad for significant periods earn more when they return than their stay-at-home counterparts. Conversely, Ireland’s economy has benefited in intangible ways from the fact that some high-ranking officials in other countries have fond memories of student work experiences in Ireland.

The experience of working in a different culture, possibly working in another language, enhances the earnings of those returning. While there is no comparable research showing a long-term earnings enhancement from student work experience abroad, having a good time on a J1 visa probably does help develop independence and a better understanding of the outside world. Having done an unusual job, or worked in an exotic place, may help a CV stick out from the crowd.

The pattern of student employment has changed over time. Before the financial crash, on average 30 per cent of Irish students worked part-time in Ireland, peaking at 40 per cent in the summer quarter. There was concern, particularly in relation to second-level students, that high rates of part-time work in term-time were affecting students’ academic performance. However, in 2008 many of the job opportunities dried up during the recession. By 2011 the proportion of students working had almost halved. It subsequently recovered by 2016 to account for about 20 per cent of students holding a part-time job, still well below the pre-2008 peak.

Nevertheless, student part-time workers account for over 5 per cent of those at work. For individuals, their earnings help fund the significant costs of participating in third-level education. But student employment is also important for many Irish employers, helping cover the seasonal summer peak in the hospitality sector.

Covid has hit the numbers of students with jobs in Ireland, and severely restricted opportunities to travel abroad to work. The financial impact has been somewhat cushioned by the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, and it has been cheaper for out-of-town students to live with parents while taking online classes. But hopefully summer 2022 will once again open our students to enriching work experiences abroad.

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