Are student workers crowding out low-skilled youth?

Are student workers crowding out low-skilled youth? 2017-08-29T16:47:37+00:00

The consequences of a growing student population

One of the most noticeable long-term social changes across the EU in recent decades has been the massive increase in the numbers of young people going on to higher education. This is sometimes called the ‘massification’ of tertiary education.

Whereas higher education at university used to be something for the elites, it has now become something for the ‘masses’. In some countries, this reflects a policy of encouraging a ‘widening of participation’ to include young people who have not traditionally participated in higher education beyond compulsory schooling.

Sometimes the catalyst for this development has been the promotion of democratic inclusion; sometimes it has also been propelled by the perceived requirements of the fourth industrial revolution, which is reshaping work in advanced industrial economies with a skill shortage for highly qualified labour from the indigenous population.

As a result of these different drivers, the proportions of students in higher education have grown significantly. For example, between 2001 and 2011, the population of students in the EU grew from 16.5 million to over 20 million, according to Eurostat, although it still varies enormously between EU countries and there are still a lot of young people who do not go on to higher education (see Table 1 in Beblavý et al. 2015).

Students no longer wait until they graduate to look for work; as student numbers have increased, so has the practice of combining work and study as a way of funding their education. However, this trend entails a potential risk, particularly for unskilled workers. They may find it more difficult to find jobs if they are being ‘crowded out’ by the cheaper, more highly qualified and more flexible student labour force. What are the consequences of these increases in the student population for youth employment and for young people outside HE looking for work?

Examining the problem

To address this question, we examined the structure of student employment: Who are student workers? What jobs do they do? How do typical student jobs differ from the jobs non-students do?

Our analysis of this issue employs a unique methodology. It combines data on the supply of student and non-student labour from the EU Labour Force Survey and the EUROSTUDENT project for EU countries. In addition, it provides an innovative analysis of labour demand using job vacancies posted at the leading Slovak and Czech job portal Profesia.

In the analysis of vacancies, we have built on a young but quickly growing stream of literature, which focuses on extracting data relevant to social scientists from job vacancies (see Mýtna Kureková, Beblavý and Thum-Thysen 2015; Beblavý et al. 2017 for a detailed overview of the state of the art in literature and applications).

This combined approach allowed us to gain more confidence in the results, given the high level of consistency of the findings obtained using the two distinct methodological approaches (see Beblavý et al. 2015 for the full analysis).

Diversity of employment for students

We found student employment to be highly diverse and not particularly limited to low-skilled, auxiliary occupations (Beblavý et al. 2015; 2017; Grotti, Russell and O’Reilly forthcoming). On the contrary, student work is heavily concentrated in (skilled) service and industrial work. Additionally, a non-negligible part of students in higher education already work in professional or associate professional occupations in line with their field of study, for example in the ICT sector or business services.

Precarious student jobs supplement rather than compete with core workers

At the same time, student work tends to be precarious, being associated with non-standard working time and very short contracts (Grotti, Russell and O’Reilly forthcoming).

Jobs advertised specifically for students come with fewer explicit skill and experience requirements compared to jobs not explicitly advertised for students.

The difference in skill expectations and the reduced length of work commitment suggests that there is little direct competition between student and non-student workers. It appears that student work is used to supplement the core, non-student workers, in particular at times of economic adjustment.

Rather than replacing non-students, employers appear to utilise the flexible student workers to smoothen the effects of the business cycle.

Student workers go hand in hand with a strong youth labour market

Where the labour market produces many standard jobs, such as in the Nordic countries or in Austria, student workers are also plentiful. On the contrary, in the Mediterranean countries, where work for young people is scarcer, the student worker population also appears meagre.

That does not necessarily mean, however, that Southern European students do not work as much as their Northern peers. Rather, we observe that student jobs are more likely to be advertised abroad (see Hyggen et al. 2016), adding the international mobility dimension to the flexibility characteristic of student work. This could potentially fuel internal mobility within the European Union, as explored by Hyggen et al. (2016).

Policy implications

Our research suggests that policy-makers should welcome the growth in student employment and do not need to fear a crowding-out effect whereby students are displacing other, less well qualified young workers.

Instead, attention should be given to matching the work that students undertake with their fields of study (see McGuiness, Bergin and Whelan 2015b), and to ensuring high-quality working conditions (including decent wages) for all young workers in general, irrespective of their student status.


Beblavý, Miroslav, Mehtap Akgüc, Brian Fabo, Karolien Lenaerts and Félix Paquier. 2017. A Methodological Inquiry into the Data Generating Process Concerning New Jobs and Skills. Methodology. Working paper, Leuven, FP7 InGRID project, M21.6.

Beblavý, Miroslav, and Brian Fabo. 2016. ‘Impact of Student Workers on the European Labor Markets’. Human Resource Management 6: 27-41.

Beblavý, Miroslav, Brian Fabo, Lucia Mýtna Kureková and Zuzana Žilinčíková. 2015. Are Student Workers Crowding out Low-Skilled Youth? STYLE Working Paper WP5.3 Are student workers crowding out the low skilled youth

Grotti, Raffaele, Helen Russell and Jacqueline O’Reilly. Forthcoming. ‘Where Do Young People Work?’ In Youth Labor in Transition, edited by Jacqueline O’Reilly, Janine Leschke, Renate Ortlieb, Martin Seeleib-Kaiser and Paola Villa. New York: Oxford University Press.

McGuinness, Seamus, Adele Bergin and Adele Whelan. 2015b. Recruitment Methods & Educational Provision effects on Graduate Over-Education and Over-Skilling. STYLE Working Paper WP5.4 Report Recruitment Methods

McGuinness, Seamus, Adele Bergin and Adele Whelan. 2016. ‘Is there a Role for Higher Education Institutions in Improving the Quality of First Employment?’ The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy 16 (4). doi:10.1515/bejeap-2016-0174

Mýtna Kureková, Lucia, Miroslav Beblavý and Anna Thum-Thysen. 2015. ‘Using Online Vacancies and Web Surveys to Analyse the Labour Market: A Methodological Inquiry’. IZA Journal of Labor Economics 4 (1): 1–20. doi:10.1186/s40172-015-0034-4

Mýtna Kureková, Lucia, and Zuzana Žilinčíková. 2016. ‘Are Student Jobs Flexible Jobs? Using Online Data to Study Employers’ Preferences in Slovakia’. IZA Journal of Labor Studies 5: 20. doi:10.1186/s40174-016-0070-5