MSU dining halls juggle with keeping up normal service amid student staffing shortage
This story originally aired on NPR's Morning Edition.
While many students have returned to college this fall, some of the usual parts of campus life aren't yet back to normal.
That includes dining halls where hours have been cut and mealtime options have been greatly limited.
That’s in part because of a shortage of student workers to staff them.
From resident assistants to lab workers, about 36% of students at Michigan State University are typically employed on campus.
Rebecca King has been working at MSU’s dining halls since the spring of 2019.
We do 35,000 meals a day. And so, when we're doing it that large of a scale, it takes a lot of people to make that happen.
But recently, she’s been one of the only student workers on staff at her serving station during shifts. And even then, she’s had to take over when full-time food workers aren't available.
"Definitely for breakfast, there's been times where, like, there's not like a head chef or something. So, it gets a little busy," she said.
MSU usually hires about 4,000 student employees to work in its dining halls. But at the beginning of the fall semester, King was among only 400 coming back to the job after a year off campus due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Vennie Gore is the university's senior vice president for student life and engagement. Through his role, he oversees food operations at the school.
"We do 35,000 meals a day. And so, when we're doing it that large of a scale, it takes a lot of people to make that happen," he said.
Gore has a few theories about why this school and others are struggling to recruit enough student workers. One reason is that there are now two classes of students adapting to what is their first semester being physically on campus.
"They want to have that college experience. I mean, we've had a level of involvement in our campus activities we just haven't seen in years."
As a way of encouraging students to return to their old jobs, the university has tried to be more accommodating of their schedules and has sharply increased its wages. Students working in dining halls can now make up to $15 an hour.
Even still, the school is short about 2,000 student workers.
So, MSU has tried other approaches to fill in the gaps.
Administrative Residential and Hospitality Services employees work in the dining halls each week.
The university also put out a call for faculty to pick up shifts on a unpaid volunteer basis.
About 50 signed up, but that request didn’t go over well. The backlash came from staffers who said they were already overworked by coming back to campus.
A five-hour shift at DoorDash or at Shipt, just going around buying groceries and delivering it all around Flint or Lansing, goes a lot quicker than four hours of standing at the dish line at Michigan State.
Junior Jack Stedron decided not to return to his dining hall job. When lockdowns started last year, he chose to stay home and take a year off before returning to classes this fall.
"I wanted to get myself back in the flow of doing homework, getting, going to classes, you know, remembering what the workload is like," he said.
Stedron also says he found more flexibility during his year at home working in the gig economy with apps like Shipt and DoorDash.
"A five-hour shift at DoorDash or at Shipt, just going around buying groceries and delivering it all around Flint or Lansing, goes a lot quicker than four hours of standing at the dish line at Michigan State."
Robert Nelson heads the National Association of College and University Food Services. He says what’s happening at MSU isn’t unique.
"It has been a challenge this year, especially hard for restaurants, and that would include those on campuses," he said.
Nelson sees schools trying to be more creative in addressing staff shortages while maintaining service for hungry students. Initiatives like bringing food trucks to campus.
Despite those efforts, Nelson predicts it will take time to build back the workforce because it’s typically returning students who seek out employment.
"Last year, there were no students on campus, so I think it will take a couple of years to build up to the level it was before."
Back at MSU, Gore asks for patience as he seeks enough student workers to fully staff the school’s eight dining halls and about a dozen other quick service locations.