The university student side-hustle has come of age in the year of Covid lockdowns

Eufemia Didonato

student jobs - Rii Schroer
student jobs – Rii Schroer

Student unions are deserted, events are off the agenda, learning has moved online and universities across the country are doing all they can to keep students inside their accommodation. There is a lot for students to worry about this term. But where does the pandemic leave those who rely on paid work to cover their costs? Are there any student jobs still available – and how do you find one when you’re barely able to leave your “bubble”?

“Since April, we’ve been worrying about how students will be able to support themselves,” says Charlie Ball, the head of higher education intelligence at Graduate Prospects. “For so many of them, the maintenance loan just about covers rent – or not even that. They rely on paid work too – and much of that comes from the hospitality industry. Those opportunities just aren’t there.”

Emma Moore, the director of careers and employability at the ­University of Liverpool, confirms that there are fewer options available. “City-wise, there has been a massive drop in bar work and hospitality jobs,” she says. However, there are retail options. “Lidl, Iceland and Morrisons are all recruiting in our area, as well as the warehouses like Amazon and Yodel and also the job centres.”

University careers services will all be working hard to find and fill those local opportunities for students and also offer campus jobs. “There has been a massive increase in campus positions, some of them Covid-related,” says Moore. “We’re recruiting 50 safety marshals to make sure students wear masks and follow the one-way systems, and there are contact tracing jobs.” There are also a variety of non-Covid positions – many currently virtual, to be fitted around studies – such as giving careers advice, digital coaching and writing coaching.

“We’re advertising for 20 caterers,” says Kate Sanson, JobZone manager at the University of Nottingham. “We’ve just filled library assistant jobs, sports brand ambassadors, social media assistant jobs, university vloggers and bloggers. There has been an awful lot of change, but there are still jobs that need to be done.”

Though these places are filled fast, registering with their university’s employment centre usually means students will receive regular alerts as opportunities arise. There are also recruitment agencies specialising in flexible working. Red Wigwam is one of them – students make up much of its workforce. “In the first two weeks of lockdown, we had 10,000 new people register with us looking for work,” says Lorna Davidson, its CEO. “There are still jobs – retail positions such as mystery shoppers, building stands in supermarkets, warehouse work – but finding consistent work is our biggest challenge right now.”

Online tutoring is one boom sector, as parents across the country seek affordable ways to supplement their children’s lost learning. MyTutor, which specialises in peer-to-peer tutoring from university students, has experienced a three-fold growth in demand this year – with maths making up 30 per cent of the lessons, followed by English, then chemistry, physics and biology. However, demand in every subject has seen a huge uptick – including a 350 per cent rise in French and Spanish tutorials. Students wishing to join this platform submit their application and go through an interview process before uploading their details online. They will have access to a wealth of resources to help with their lessons. How much they charge is up to them, although MyTutor suggests starting at £10 an hour and raising fees as experience builds.

Side hustles are also on the up, as more students attempt to create their own opportunities. One poll of 1,000 students by Santander found that student side hustles have risen by 50 per cent since 2018, and that one in 10 students has their own “small business”, making an average of £411.67 a month. “We’ve definitely noticed a big rise in students coming to us asking for support and advice with side hustles since the pandemic,” says Moore. “We’ve had students making masks and selling them on eBay. One started visor production. We can offer advice on marketing and promotion and how to make their businesses viable.”

Helen Tupper, the co-author of careers bestseller The Squiggly Career, says any university side hustle should start with a passion. “You need to find the energy and motivation to keep this going on top of your studies, so it has to be something you enjoy,” she says. “Once you have the idea, look for others who share that passion, make connections, see who can help.” Start small, advises Tupper. “Don’t try to create the next Facebook. Focus on one event or one sale.”

A side hustle launched during a pandemic will give students an excellent head-start in the career market – it is proof of resilience, initiative and creativity. “Having a side hustle makes you a very valuable future employee,” says Tupper. “Employers want idea creators, change makers – and if you have a side hustle, you’re not just saying that you have these skills, you’re showing it.

“It also gives students an insight into what they enjoy doing and what they’re good at – instead of having to find that out on the fly once they’ve entered the workforce. The more insight you have into yourself and the world of work before you enter it, the better it is for everyone.”

Liam Shinar, 23, studies music at Cambridge and also sells his art on Etsy at LiamshinarArt

Liam Shinar art - Geoff Pugh
Liam Shinar art – Geoff Pugh

“I’ve never studied art – not even at GCSE. In my first year of university, I went through a very tough time, I was severely anxious and depressed and went home for almost a full term. I was looking for something to distract me and my mum suggested painting. It took all my focus and didn’t allow any other thoughts to intrude.

“It helped a lot, I had a great second year, continued with my art and started posting it on Instagram. I got a lot of followers and views and likes so then I put more effort in, filming the pieces and editing them to music. Then I wondered if I could maybe sell some so I set up an Etsy store because they don’t take a big cut. I had no idea about pricing so I did a bit of market research, looked at other Instagram artists, compared their following with mine. I was kind of astounded when people bought stuff – I’ve recently sent pieces to Bulgaria and Canada! Most of my pieces are around £80 or £90 but I also sell stickers and recently someone requested some masks too. In a good month, I make £300 or £400.

“Cambridge terms are short so I do most of the painting in the holidays – I tried doing them at university, there wasn’t much space and the dorm got very dirty! I’ve learned so much about costs and profits, and marketing yourself – I’ve started doing Q&As with followers, engaging with them, watching the algorithms to see what’s effective.

“I don’t know what I want to do in the future but this is definitely something I’ll always do as a hobby. It started because I needed help, it keeps me ticking over and if I could one day make a living from it, then that would be awesome.”

Nadia Simpson, 21, studies accountancy and finance at Kent University. In August 2019 she launched her own side hustle, Nadia Esi, an organic haircare range

Student side hustles - Rii Schroer
Student side hustles – Rii Schroer

“The idea came from a horror experience in a salon just before I started uni. I had really tight cornrows put in and when I took them out, I had no hairs left at the front – it ruined my hairline. I felt desperate, my confidence was destroyed, I wanted a hair transplant but my mum wasn’t having it! Instead, I started researching products that would help the regrowth and began making my own solutions – then friends told me I should sell them.

“I’ve got eight aunts, all of them are business women, and I’ve always wanted a business of my own. It took over a year finding the right oils, visiting the UK farms where they were distilled, then finding microbiologists to test them; I got there through really hard networking. At first, I sold through Instagram and at some ­university events, then launched in August 2019. I also sell in a handful of stores and salons. Sales vary but on my most amazing week ever, I made £700. In a way, lockdown made it easier to juggle this with my studies as all my work is now online. I do my course work, lectures, seminars and essays in the day when I’m most alert, then work on the business in the evening because it fulfils me, I love it and I can always find the energy.

“I still aim to get a job in the corporate world after graduation. I will keep this business going though and hopefully – maybe one day – I will be in a position to work on it full-time.”

Havishma Sreedharala, 21, a medical student at Leeds University, tutors online to supplement her loan

Student side jobs - Asadour Guzelian/Guzelian Ltd
Student side jobs – Asadour Guzelian/Guzelian Ltd

“It’s hard finding work that you can juggle around clinical placements so I signed up as a tutor with the online agency MyTutor last October, something you can do from home.

“I thought teaching A-levels might be too complex and hard to remember so I teach GCSE – with the help of my younger sister’s GCSE science books – and also sixth formers who are applying to study medicine and want help with personal statements, entrance exams and online interview practice.

“At the start, I was giving three lessons every day – I just wanted the money! But now I’ve calmed down a bit because I’m so busy. I do about three hours of tutoring a week – and make about £25.50 per hour after the agency has taken its fee. Tutoring fits well with my life. I can sit at my desk and revise, then give an online lesson, then go back to revision.

“At first, I was worried that one of the students might ask a question and I wouldn’t know the answer but that hasn’t happened and I’ve discovered that I really enjoy teaching – I have even been thinking about going into medical education as a result.

“It sounds a cliché but it’s so fulfilling when a student doesn’t understand a topic at the beginning but can answer exam-style questions by the end.

“Tutoring involves talking to children and their parents and it has definitely improved my communication skills, which is useful in any career. I’d really recommend it.”

Alastair Telfer, 22, works 12 hours a week as a career coach for the University of Liverpool, where he is a fourth-year business management student

Liverpool University student jobs - Paul Cooper
Liverpool University student jobs – Paul Cooper

“Last year, I worked at the university’s careers service as part of my degree and so I learned a lot about writing CVs, job applications, marketing yourself. Partly as a result of that, I managed to get a part-time job with them this year – I do 12 hours a week, which pays £4,800 a year. That income really makes a difference to my life. It helps me pay my rent.

“Normally, the job would have been helping students face-to-face in the careers office – which I would prefer – but now it’s virtual. You log in from wherever you are, and there are students in the Zoom waiting room, wanting help with their CVs, their cover letters, mock interviews or maybe general careers advice. My whole university course is online right now, so I can do it from anywhere and having this part-time job has made me really organised. You can’t lie in – you have to get up early and be productive in order to make time for everything.

“I’ve also developed some other side projects. I want to get into sports journalism in the future, so I’ve started a sports blog. As a result of that, I was approached by a rugby magazine who have given me some writing assignments. I don’t think it’s enough to just do your degree any more. You have to find other ways to work towards what you want in the future.”

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