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Why employers are reaching out to next generation: Gen Z

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17-year-old Evon Lopez searches for a Garage Band project she\’s working on for her audio engineering class Thursday, March 30, 2017, at ITW David Speer Academy in Chicago. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO — Many teens spend their summers lifeguarding or ice-cream scooping. Not Evon Lopez.

Lopez, at 16, spent the summer between her sophomore and junior years of high school interning at Abbott Laboratories. At graduation from the eight-week program last August, she delivered a PowerPoint presentation detailing, among other things, corporate safety initiatives at the health care company headquartered outside Chicago.

Sound like a snooze? To the contrary, Lopez said the experience reinforced her interest in architectural engineering.

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Asked to name the highlights of the program, the teen described a visit to Abbott’s nutrition facility in Ohio where employees explained how they created formula to save infants’ lives.

“It just shows that their goal is to help as many people as they can in any way possible,” Lopez said of the company, “and that’s a place that I would like to work in.”

An interest in jobs with a greater social purpose is a hallmark of the millennial generation. But Lopez is a member of Generation Z, the post-millennial group that is just starting to graduate from high school and college and catch the interest of employers.

Gen Z is composed of the kids who were born, roughly, between 1995 and 2010 and came of age during the Great Recession.

Though it’s too soon to say how Gen Z might shape the workplace, early surveys paint a portrait distinct from the wide-eyed, self-involved image of their millennial predecessors. Gen Zers, an emerging trove of research suggests, are entrepreneurial yet pragmatic, hardworking yet easily distracted, with a streak of realism running through their desire to make a social impact.

Some employers are trying to appeal to Gen Z early, with versions of internships normally reserved for college students now being extended to high schoolers to create a pipeline of talent.

At Abbott, which started its high school internship five years ago, starting younger also is meant to address the shortfall of women and minorities in the STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — workforce, which is important as it serves an increasingly diverse customer base.

“What we want to do is increase the possibility that they will enter STEM, be successful at it and be able to go on and have meaningful careers in these areas,” said Corlis Murray, Abbott’s top engineer and leader of the high school internship program. “The younger we reach them, the higher we increase that probability.”

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With the rise of early professional exposure, members of Gen Z are positioned for powerful careers, said Jeanne Meister, partner at Future Workplace, a human resources research firm in New York.

“They are definitely more serious and mature entering the workforce” than millennials, Meister said.

Assigning sweeping generalizations to a generation of 60 million people is, at best, an inexact exercise, but that doesn’t stop a steady drip of research from offering varied takes on Gen Z.

“They are radically different from millennials,” said David Stillman, co-author, with his 17-year-old son Jonah, of the book “Gen Z @ Work,” released in March.

If everyone-gets-a-trophy millennials, reared by baby boomers during flush times, prioritized passion and teamwork, then Gen Z, raised by independent Generation Xers during times of financial distress, learned that you have to fight hard to win, Stillman said.

“We have a generation entering the workforce that is extremely competitive,” said Stillman, who has written several books on how generations interact in the workplace.

Some Gen Z traits seem old-school.

Three-quarters of Gen Zers say they are willing to start at the bottom and work their way to the top, implying a respect for paying dues, Stillman’s research found. More than 60 percent said they are willing to stay at a company for 10 years, suggesting a return to employer loyalty after the job-hopping tendencies of millennials. Only 8 percent said they want an open-office concept, despite workspace design trends that have been knocking down walls to emphasize collaboration.

But other traits are less traditional. For example, more than half of Gen Zers want to write their own job description, reflecting a desire for a hypercustomized career experience that could be driven by the personal branding that social media has pushed since they were kids, Stillman said.

That preference could draw them to small and medium-sized businesses, where employees can more easily wear multiple hats than at large companies, he said.

Indeed, a survey last year by Accenture of the 2016 graduating college class, by some measures the vanguard of Gen Z, found they are three times more likely to want to work at a small or medium company than a large one, presenting big companies with a recruiting challenge.

Some employers are being proactive by planting a seed early.

Southwest Airlines last summer hosted its third class of high school interns, who worked for eight weeks at the company’s Dallas headquarters. This fall it plans to host its first “aviation day” for kids in third through eighth grade, a free event that will include guest speakers and a tour of an aircraft maintenance hangar.

Anticipating a massive skills shortage as baby boomers retire, Greg Muccio, a senior manager in Southwest’s “people department,” said the airline industry needs to drum up excitement among youth.

“We have consciously set down a path to start reaching a much younger audience to encourage them and make them aware of a career in aviation,” he said. Some of the industry’s biggest needs are in hourly entry-level jobs that don’t require higher education, so Muccio wants to appeal to high schoolers who may not be interested in or ready for college.

Southwest this summer also will host its third summer camp for the high-school aged children of employees across the country. The three-day event of tours and games in Dallas, which last year drew 150 teens, aims to steer those already familiar with the company to careers there by showing what it takes to be a pilot or a mechanic.

The camp left an impression on Chicagoan Kyle Norbut, who participated just before starting his freshman year at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana last year. The 18-year-old acting major, who was impressed by the family atmosphere and the sense that employees were “having a ball,” intends to pursue a career in theater — but now is considering a flexible side job at Southwest.

Hitting Gen Z early can set both teens and employers up for success.

At Abbott, about 97 percent of those who complete the high school internship go on to work or major in a STEM field, said Murray, the engineer who leads the program. She has found that kids who do the high school internship are more mature and able to take complex assignments when they start the company’s college program, and she is studying whether the early work affects college academic performance.

The demands are sophisticated. High school interns get meaningful assignments — no making copies — and have to deliver results.

That can be terrifying.

“On my first day I was very freaked out,” said Emily Voigt, who was among 35 interns in last summer’s high school intern class, her second year in the program. Abbott recruits interns with at least a 3.0 GPA from 10 schools in seven markets, including two in Chicago.

Voigt, who is now a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studies civil and environmental engineering, said she avoided talking to her manager at first for fear that that she would be dismissed because of her age or wouldn’t know the answers to technical questions.

But Voigt, who exuded confidence as she gave a presentation at the program graduation, said her interpersonal skills improved once she realized it was OK to ask questions and make mistakes.

“I think that creates an environment that allows the most growth, because you feel comfortable doing those things you might not do and asking the questions you might not ask,” she said.

Murray said a consistent thread she sees among the interns is an interest in the company’s sustainable and socioeconomic responsibilities.

But some surveys paint Gen Z as a practical, hardworking generation with money on the brain.

Monster.com, the job search site, found Gen Zers are motivated by pay more than other generations are, and are more willing to relocate for a good job and work nights and weekends for a better salary than their older counterparts.

They are also more entrepreneurial: Nearly half of Gen Zers want to own their own business, compared with a third across all generations, Monster’s survey found.

Some companies are considering how to put emergent Gen Z research to use.

Meister, from the consultancy Future Workplace, said one distinctive quality employers can count on is that these young workers, who grew up teaching themselves through massive open online courses and other online tools, will expect to have growth opportunities at their fingertips.

“Investment in on-demand learning and development is going to be critical to attract and keep talent,” Meister said. “This is going to be seen as the make or break benefit as to whether to join a company or not.”

Other studies suggest pay transparency will be a must.

Equity in pay and promotion was cited by those in Gen Z as the most important factor for gaining trust in an employer, according to a survey last year by EY, the accounting firm once known as Ernst & Young. That differs from the general population, which cited an employer’s ability to deliver on promises as No.1 — perhaps because of media and celebrity attention to gender and racial pay gaps.

In addition, market researchers say Gen Z will be the last generation in the U.S. to have a white majority, so diversity and inclusion are core values, according to BridgeWorks, a consultancy that helps employers overcome generation gaps. BridgeWorks prefers to call the group “Generation Edge,” in part because it’s on the cusp of a demographic shift.

Back at Abbott, the company is starting to see the fruits of its high school investment.

Nick Urh, who was in Abbott’s first high school internship class, went back as a college intern and now is in its professional development program, rotating through various divisions at the company. He is currently in the diabetes division in Alameda, Calif., working on glucose meters that will no longer require finger pricks.

“It really opened my eyes to the potential we had to impact so many lives,” he said.

Urh, 23, who grew up in Gurnee, Ill., and graduated last year from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is on the generational cusp. He says he identifies with both the millennial eagerness to make a social difference and the Gen Z appetite for job security — and, thanks to the internship, sees a path to achieve both.

Urh expects to be hired as a permanent employee at Abbott once the program finishes in June and hopes to pursue a career there in manufacturing operations.

“Why should I leave?” Urh said.

Music to an employer’s ears.

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