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College Issue: Workin' it
Savannah businesses depend on students
Bethany Pomransky, SCAD architecture student, at work at the Coastal Heritage Society offices designing windows - photo by Robin Wright Gunn

RUNNING ERRANDS TODAY? The cashier at Walmart, the “gofer” at your lawyer’s office, and the barista making coffee for your quick pick-me-up may all have homework on the brain.

With an estimated 44,000 students enrolled at Savannah area colleges and universities, chances are good that the front line workers at many Savannah businesses are doing double duty as students.

“Over the years I’ve probably employed two hundred students,” says Judy Davis, owner of Gallery Espresso, a coffee bar and art gallery on Bull Street.

Amy Long is a SCAD painting and printmaking senior who works at “Gallery” 15 to 20 hours per week during the school quarter, preparing coffee drinks and serving breakfast treats during her morning shift.

“Pretty much everyone who works there is or was a student,” says Long. “Currently at least seven of us are at SCAD. Two other workers go to Armstrong.”

Off-campus jobs fall into three types. The first two, internships and co-ops, are often part of a course curriculum and are monitored in some way through the university.

The third type might be described as ‘everything else,” or, general employment. Some students work in jobs related to their school studies, with an added benefit of future career enhancement, but many students, like Long, fill non-career-oriented jobs.

AASU, SSU and SCAD all have Savannah jobs posted on their career office websites, including vacancies at large corporations and employment agencies.

“Walmart is a big employer for our students while they are in school,” says Bonita Bradley, Director of Student Leadership and Development at SSU. “A lot of our students are in the Wilmington Island and Montgomery Cross Road Walmarts.”

One reason employers seek college student workers is to groom future full time workers for their companies.

“Six of my project managers and our design team leader are local college graduates” who began as student employees at Coastal Heritage Society (CHS,) says Stewart Dohrman, Curator of Buildings at CHS.

In Dohrman’s department, fourteen students from SCAD and AASU are currently working as brick repointers, carpenters or general laborers.

“We’ve had as many as 20 students at a time working for us. When we started they would do repointing. They still primarily do this,” removing deteriorating mortar between old bricks and replacing it with new mortar at the Roundhouse Railroad Museum, Old Fort Jackson, and the Savannah History Museum.

“The plusses of hiring students are, you get this incredible energy, dedication and interest,” says Dohrman. “They are often just plain fun to be around.”

“The hard part is having to adjust to schedules. Their main focus is, of course, school.”

Dohrman laughingly describes college worker scheduling as “a bit of a nightmare.” Over the years, CHS has developed a contract-like system with student employees.

“We know their exam schedule, we allow the students to set their schedule up front. At the beginning of the semester they declare how many hours per week they’re going to work that semester. That’s our agreement with them. We set up one schedule and that’s it. We make some allowances for exams and things.”

“We stress to employers that they are students first,” says SSU’s Bradley. “We stress that to the students as well. Academics are number one on their plate. This is another opportunity for them to build.”

Long and AASU economics senior Lyle Mackenzie both list job schedule flexibility as a top priority, mentioning it before talking about their pay rates. Mackenzie recently started working as a driver and runner for Brennan & Wasden LLP, a Savannah law firm, after about six months employment at a local beverage shop.

His new boss waited until Mackenzie firmed up his class schedule during the drop/add period before establishing the work schedule for the semester. He works 12 to 18 hours per week, and also makes one to two car trips per month to other Georgia cities, driving attorneys to out of town meetings.

“They work in the back seat while I drive,” says Mackenzie.

“Especially during exam weeks it’s hard to find time to work every day. Come exams, I need those extra twenty hours to hit the books, but I don’t want to get fired to get the studying done.” The job pays $10 an hour for weekday work, or a $200 flat fee for the car trips.

Long says that her boss, Davis, makes a new schedule weekly “because there are so many kids that work there and so many things get in the way. She is kind of amazing, making the schedule to accommodate everyone’s needs.”

Employers who hire students find the extra scheduling a worthwhile effort because of other qualities students tend to bring to work with them, such as good time management, motivation, and often a passion for their work, especially when it overlaps with their field of study.

“Those students that participate in extra curricular activities, including work, are more stable students,” says Bradley. “They have a calendar, they are more organized as far as time management. These students are a little bit more focused in navigating through the four years of college.”

Historic preservation classes from SCAD and AASU often visit the Roundhouse, givng Dohrman the chance to end his presentations “with an advertisement. I tell them we often hire, and if they’re interested to put in an application.”

“The preservation students coming in, they love and care for the buildings. We don’t have to teach them that. All we have to teach them is the trade skill.”

Now that Long is working as well as going to school “I have to plan my days a lot better. “I have to get my sleep, otherwise I can’t function. It’s harder to keep my grades up, honestly, but it’s nice to have money.

“I don’t know if [the job] will help my career but being a barista definitely will help me because anywhere I move I can get a job.”

At first, Long considered a gallery position, often considered a career-oriented job for painting majors, but found the coffee shop a better fit for her life as a student.

“Working at Gallery is perfect. It’s close to my house, I can bike there. I don’t have to dress up. It works better with my schedule.

“Gallery is such a hub for students. You get to know everyone, as well as the locals. You never leave your social life when you go to work. Tips are awesome. The other night, on Labor Day, I walked away with $50 in tips. We get paid a regular wage on top of that.

“And, there’s free coffee if you work there, which is always good for college students.”