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Bridging a Gap: Gen Z gets bad rap on attitude toward jobs, local employers say

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While the members of Generation Z are largely new to the workforce, stereotypes about their work ethic, technology focus and salary demands are pervasive. Defined by the Pew Research Center as those born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z is needed to fill jobs in a myriad industries – a labor participation issue that is only going to grow as those from older generations retire, employers and young workers agree.

However, despite that workforce challenge, some employers are hesitant to hire Gen Z applicants, according to a recent study from New Jersey-based research group Intelligent. The study that surveyed 800 U.S. managers, directors, and executives who are involved in hiring found a widespread belief that recent Gen Z college graduates are struggling with many aspects of professional life, making them less desirable to hire.

Nearly 40% of survey respondents said they avoid hiring recent college graduates for positions they’re eligible for in favor of older candidates. Roughly one in five employers say that when it comes to job interviews, recent college graduates are unprepared, with 53% saying applicants struggle with eye contact. Additionally, roughly half of employers say young prospective workers ask for unreasonable compensation and that they have had candidates show up to their interviews dressed inappropriately.

Survey results notwithstanding, Gen Z is seen in a more favorable light by some local employers.

“I think that Gen Z gets a bad rap that they’re lazy and this and that,” said Dennis Bailey, recruiting manager at distribution company SGC Foodservice per his LinkedIn page.

Bailey said most prospective employees he deals with are seeking jobs in the operations department, which includes warehouse and sanitation maintenance work.

Bailey, who retired from the Navy in 2021 after 22 years of service, said he spent more than a decade of that time as a military recruiter. He became quite familiar with Gen Z members over that span, as they made up the majority of recruits. 

Regarding interviews at SGC, he said the members of Gen Z he talks with are interested in the culture of the company, as well as what they’ll be doing as long-term employees.

“I don’t get a lot of standard questions I used to get from an older generation, such as, ‘What are the benefits?’ That’s not something that comes up with Gen Z,” he said. “They’re more interested in what’s the culture of the company and the amount of time that they have to give up as far as work hours.”

Young perspective
Jonathan Bell, 19, who owns his own business, Bells Marketing Consultant LLC, said he’s experienced struggles getting hired as a member of Gen Z in Springfield.

“When I initially got into the market, I was extremely ambitious. I wanted to work. That’s all I really wanted to do,” he said, adding he got denied for numerous fast food restaurant jobs, including several that didn’t even want to interview him.

Through his marketing firm, he hosted an April 12 event at the Efactory. It largely focused on bringing together regional employers with Gen Z workers, Bell said, adding many people his age feel a disconnect when seeking jobs. Springfield Public Schools, Big Momma’s Coffee and Espresso Bar LLC and Taney County Partnership were among those with representatives in attendance.

“I’ve seen a lot of generational divide in our community, and I know that’s a national issue, even possibly global,” he said. “I’ve just noticed that a lot of people within the younger generations who are eager to get into the workforce are continuously being denied because there’s just some stereotypes out there speaking directly toward Generation Z. There’s some that think we’re lazy. There’s some that think that we don’t want to work, and we don’t show up to interviews.”

For Bell, whenever he applied for the restaurant jobs, he said he asked what his daily tasks would be, the team culture and if he would get to meet the company’s owners.

“If I was a job seeker, I would care more about enabling a company to allow me to be creative within their workplace so I can thrive rather than a salary,” he said. “We don’t want to come to work and feel like it’s just work. We want to actually enjoy the process.”

Kendrick Edwards was at Bell’s event representing Central Bank in Springfield, where he works as a marketing assistant. Noting Bell also was a classmate of his at Parkview High School, Edwards said he was hired by the bank in 2021 after starting there as an intern. The 2021 PHS graduate received his associate degree in business at Ozarks Technical Community College last year, then started last fall at Missouri State University. He’s studying business and marketing management while maintaining his bank job.

“I feel like us as a generation, we value work that offers autonomy. We prefer not to be micromanaged,” Edwards said. “We want a flexible work schedule, fair compensation, obviously, and benefits, and also a strong work-life balance. I feel like it’s a lot of people within Gen Z almost see it as you’re interviewing the company you’re wanting to work at and make sure that they’re a good fit for you and that they align kind of with your goals and your overall aspirations.”

He said Central Bank gives him work that’s meaningful and allows him to form a strong connection between his job duties and his college studies, adding his employer also is providing him the work-life balance he seeks.

Generation connection
The Missouri Job Center works daily with Gen Z applicants, said spokesperson Katherine Proctor. Much of that work is through its Aspire Youth Services program, which serves young adults ages 14-24. Some of that includes job-readiness activities, mock interviews, resume building and occupational skills training.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects Gen Z will comprise roughly 30% of the U.S. workforce by 2030.

“A big thing for that generation, and I would say for a lot of others, is the flexibility in the job feeling valued,” Proctor said, adding there’s also a desire to make a livable wage. 

The Job Center hosted an employer roundtable discussion in September 2023 that focused on better engaging employees ages 18-24 and keeping them in the workforce. Around 40 Springfield-area employers talked about their shared experiences, according to officials. The need for better soft skills development were among concerns employers brought up, Proctor said.

“How to treat someone in an interview and shake their hand and how to always not just rely on texting, check your emails, those types of different types of communication,” she said. “That’s what we heard from the employers is just they were just lacking some of those soft skills that were needed for the job.”

As a follow-up, the Job Center hosted a two-week workshop for young workers in January that covered topics such as resume building, basic interview etiquette and interview skills. While turnout was low with just five attendees, who met for five hours per weekday, Proctor said officials want to hold the workshop again at a yet-to-be-determined date.

One of the attendees at last September’s roundtable discussion, Jesse Lovelady with MaMa Jean’s Natural Food Market LLC, said Gen Z employees are an important part of the grocer’s workforce. She estimated about half of its 150 employees are members of Gen Z. Of those who seek jobs with the company, she said Gen Z represents about 80% of applicants.

Lovelady, the company’s growth manager, used to interview applicants when she was a store manager a couple years ago. She said most of the conversations with Gen Z during the onboarding process are less about the paycheck and shift toward asking how they can earn more paid time off and what the company offers for mental health support. MaMa Jean’s has started offering leadership classes to its employees as well as volunteer opportunities.

“We’ve started offering paid volunteer time for our employees,” Lovelady said.

Additionally, management is having more success at getting applicants to call back – a previously longstanding problem with Gen Z.

“We’re starting to text message a lot more, so we’ll text to have scheduled interviews and not even bother calling because a lot of times it’ll go straight to voicemail anyway and they won’t call back,” she said. “So, we’ve shifted some of our practices to make it easier.”

Although Bryant Young, director of business development at Insurors of the Ozarks, said his company doesn’t employ anyone from Gen Z, he’s familiar with the younger workforce through volunteering with The Network, a networking and advocacy group for professionals under the age of 40. He’s the immediate past chair of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce organization.

“We spend time on campus, we send representatives from our organization to a lot of campus events,” he said. “We’re inviting students to network with our organization so that we can kind of introduce them to talk to them about what it’s like to live in Springfield as a person who graduated within the last 10 years.”

He said there’s a bit of a generational gap between Gen Z and employers as needs and wants, as well as motivations, are different for both parties. That might look like flexible work environments, being good citizens of the community and providing engaging work or opportunities for upward mobility.

“All those things are things that Gen Z wants, but then it’s also convincing Gen Z that they have to make some concessions toward what their managers or what the ownership is looking for as well,” Young said. “So, it’s finding a good fit for everybody.”

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