Back to school means back to work

Key takeaways

  • Fall is the peak period for labor demand at academic institutions
  • Shifts at schools, colleges, and universities are dominated by cafeteria roles
  • Pay rates are competitive and time-to-fill is short thanks to high labor supply

The education sector is a study in economic contrasts. Over any given year, its labor demand is extremely seasonal. Yet over the economic cycle, its labor demand is much more stable than that of other industries, since people are more likely to seek further schooling during downturns. Right now, after the Covid-19 pandemic postponed education for some students, business is booming.

Most of this academic year's students may not arrive until August or September, but campuses across the United States and Canada are already preparing for them. Housing, feeding, and offering amenities to thousands of young people is an annual challenge, and the labor market became even more difficult in the aftermath of the pandemic. Colleges and universities can still count on work-study students to fill some roles, but their need for labor is still acute.

The season for learning

Because a huge number of schools, colleges, and universities book shifts on the Instawork platform, we can track how their needs for labor evolve over time. The chart below shows how shift bookings on campuses changed over the last academic year, looking only at institutions that had signed up to our platform before the year began:

It won't come as a shock that September is one of the biggest months when academic institutions use flexible labor. After starting to ramp up in August, demand stays strong into October and part of November. Then come the holidays, when many students go home.

More surprisingly, demand doesn't spike again in February – in fact, it stays pretty steady through spring break and graduation before dipping to its summer lows in June. Most likely, this is because students are able to pick up more shifts as the year goes on. Not all work-study positions are filled right at the start of the year, but by the spring most probably are.

Filling shifts before the bell

So what are the shifts that academic institutions will be booking this fall? Hourly roles on campus can range from kitchen staff to cleaners, library attendants to shuttle drivers. But last year, the majority of our Pros came to campus to work in cafeterias:

Shifts for line cooks, prep cooks, dishwashers, counter staff, and cashiers made up two thirds of our volume over the last academic year. About half of the remainder came from events, with servers at 14% and bartenders at 2%. Besides general labor, the other notable category was custodial at 2.5%.

Custodial was also one of the highest-paying positions, with hourly rates averaging around $23 across our platform. Line cooks and bartenders – two roles unlikely to be filled by students – also averaged more than $20. Yet about half of the roles had lower rates, around $18 or less:

Food service workers were a small category – the role is relatively rarely used on our platform – and received high pay; more than 85% of these shifts were in the Bay Area, one of our most expensive markets. The shifts for other roles were much more spread out geographically.

These rates were very competitive relative to national averages, especially given that they were for flexible shifts that can be filled on demand. For shifts booked at least two days in advance, the time to fill averages less than 12 hours for all of these roles:

We're looking forward to supporting our academic Partners this fall and throughout the academic year. The pandemic was a tough spell for the education sector, and helping academic institutions to run smoothly will hopefully mean more success for students as well.

Realtime metrics

These metrics, derived from data aggregated across the Instawork platform, compare the two weeks starting 6/29/2023 to the previous two weeks. To control for the overall growth of the Instawork marketplace, only shifts involving businesses that booked shifts in both periods are included:

  • $0.01 drop in hourly pay
  • 0.8% point rise in share of short-notice shifts
  • 3.4 hours rise in hours per existing worker

To receive future briefings and data insights from our Economic Research team, please subscribe below. Follow Daniel Altman on Twitter at @AltmanEcon or on LinkedIn.