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Universities restrict dining hall hours because there aren't enough workers

NOEL KING, HOST:

College students - many of them, anyway - are back on campus. But some aspects of college life have not gone back to normal yet. Universities rely on student workers in dining halls and residences. And just like the rest of the country, colleges are having trouble hiring. Sophia Saliby of member station WKAR in East Lansing has this story about Michigan State.

SOPHIA SALIBY, BYLINE: Here at Michigan State University, students play a big role in keeping the school up and running. From resident assistants to lab workers, about 36% of students are typically employed on campus. Rebecca King has been working at MSU's dining hall since the spring of 2019, 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.

REBECCA KING: Definitely for breakfast, there's been times when, like, there's not, like, a head chef or something. So it gets a little busy.

SALIBY: 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.

VENNIE GORE: 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.

SALIBY: That's Vennie Gore, who oversees food operations here. He 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.

GORE: They want to have that college experience. We've had a level of involvement in our campus activities we just haven't seen in years.

SALIBY: 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. One was a call for faculty to pick up shifts on a 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.

Junior Jack Stedron decided not to return to his dining hall job. When lockdown started last year, he chose to stay home and take a year off before returning to classes this fall.

JACK STEDRON: I wanted to get myself back in the flow of doing homework, going to classes, you know, remembering what the workload is like.

SALIBY: Stedron also says he found more flexibility during his year at home, working in the gig economy with apps like Shipt and DoorDash.

STEDRON: 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.

SALIBY: Robert Nelson heads the National Association of College and University Food Services and says what's happening at MSU isn't unique.

ROBERT NELSON: It has been a challenge this year, especially hard for restaurants, and that would include those on campuses.

SALIBY: 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.

NELSON: Last year, there were no students on campus, so I think it'll take a couple of years to build up to the level it was before.

SALIBY: Back at MSU, Vennie 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.

For NPR News, I'm Sophia Saliby in East Lansing.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUCK'S "TWILIGHT IN MAPLE SHADE (CHINESE CYMBALS)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.