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Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, a 22-year-old math major who will graduate this month from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, acknowledges that her generation, Gen Z, isn't afraid to say what's on its mind and confront what it sees as problems.
Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, a 22-year-old math major who will graduate this month from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, acknowledges that her generation, Gen Z, isn't afraid to say what's on its mind and confront what it sees as problems. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

When AT&T recruiters compete for young talent on college campuses, they want to show how the old telephone company has become a modern media firm. So they let students wear high-tech goggles and take a “virtual reality” walk through a typical day on the job. The employer also uses video interviews, texts and Snapchat to connect with potential young hires.

“With Gen Z … we have to show them rather than just talking about it,” said Michelle Jordan, an assistant vice president of HR development and college recruiting.

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Move over millennials. The next generation is just starting to make its way into the workforce, and employers are taking note.

The first wave of Generation Z, those born after 1996 and more than 60 million strong, will start moving from college to career this year. These newest workers come from the first post-9/11 generation, one that’s grown up with social media and smartphones, watched their parents go through the housing bust and a deep recession, and come of age amid political polarization and soaring college debt. It’s little wonder they’re pegged as anxiety-ridden, but experts say they’re also independent, pragmatic and super-connected.

Gen Zers are expected to make their presence known in the workplace, distinguishing themselves in multiple ways from millennials, those roughly in their mid-20s to late 30s. That older group, born from 1981 to 1996, now makes up the largest chunk of the labor force, having surpassed Generation X and baby boomers, according to Pew Research Center analysis. By next year, though, members of Gen Z are expected to account for a fifth of the workforce. And those workers will have a different outlook on the world.

“They grew up in a dramatically different era,” said Roger Casey, president of McDaniel College in Westminster and an expert in generational issues. “We’re just beginning to see transitions that are going to make them distinctly different from the younger people in the workforce.”

Gen Z workers will want what everyone else wants, he said, but “they will ask for it. It’s true of millennials, and we will see that even more with this next generation.”

Millennials will need to rely more on personal savings, as pension plans go extinct and government programs, such as Social Security, are stretched thin.

They’re expected to place more emphasis on financial security, flexibility and workplaces that reflect the growing diversity of their schools and peer groups.

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, a 22-year-old math major who will graduate this month from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, called her generation “vocal.”

“We say what’s on our minds, and we say it loudly, maybe too loudly,” Opoku-Agyeman said. “We’re not keeping our heads down and doing what’s in front of you and if there’s a problem ignore it. No, if it’s a problem, let’s address it.”

The Columbia resident said her age group may appear obsessed with tweets and “likes,” but there’s a flip side in that “we’re able to use the digital space for our benefit.”

To woo young talent, employers are offering flexible career paths, virtual internships and tuition assistance. Increasingly, employers also are tailoring recruitment and training to appeal to a group accustomed to learning from videos and online.

AT&T employees looking for new roles or promotions can earn fast-track “nano” degree certification in areas of company growth such as artificial intelligence or data analytics, or enroll in online master’s degree programs with company help. Ruby Tuesday trains kitchen staff with YouTube-style videos. The U.S. Army has turned to YouTube, Facebook and Instagram to reach new recruits with a hip-hop recruiting video featuring dancing soldiers rapping about the benefits of enlisted life.

For Gen Z, YouTube is not just for fun — video and visual media is the preferred method of learning, said Asha Choksi, vice president of global research and insights for education publishing company Pearson. Studies show about a third of Gen Z members spend four or more hours a day watching videos online, she said.

The generation now accounts for the greatest portion of the civilian workforce, about 40 percent, but is under-represented in the federal workforce.

“This is a generation that has only known the internet through their whole life,” Choksi said. “It’s shaped their view of the world and how they interact with others. … They’re very much self-starters. They know where to find things. Rather than dig through information in a textbook, they’ll go and find it online.”

John Nobriga, a Goucher College senior studying business management, music and theater, expects future employers to give him the resources and freedom to solve problems on his own.

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“We don’t always need that guiding hand, because we want to learn how to do it,” Nobriga said. “That’s how you get connected to the company and the job. It’s going to be something you want to do and be more interesting and make you want to come back every day and work. … If I think that a job isn't going to last or that I can’t grow in that job, I probably won’t take it, and my friends are in the same boat.”

After he graduates, Nobriga is thinking about directing a TV talk show a friend is producing or returning to his hometown of San Jose, Calif., to work in a private school’s alumni affairs department. He’s not sure yet where he’ll land.

Gen Zers tend to be more independent than millennials, McDaniel’s Casey said, maybe because they were less likely to have been brought up by the type of “helicopter” parents that shepherded millennials into adulthood.

Research shows they believe more than older generations that sexual orientation is irrelevant. And, because the internet and social media have always been there, they’re more skeptical of it.

“You don’t hear, ‘Facebook will change the way we connect,’ ” Casey said. “Now it’s, ‘What’s Big Brother doing to me?’ ’’

Psychologist Jean Marie Twenge argues in her book “iGen” that some generational changes have been harmful.

Twenge said today’s preteens and teens have been shaped by smartphones to such an extent that they may stay on their screens at home and be physically safer than adolescents of years past, but that they are unhappier and more vulnerable psychologically, regardless of ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds.

As employees, Gen Z will be more likely to question what’s expected of them, Casey said. A group that’s spent years “following” and “liking” is expected to show loyalty to workplace leadership but at the same time be quick to critique that leadership, he said. They’re also more frugal and averse to taking on debt. That could mean less job-hopping than millennials, but more intercompany role-hopping.

“The organizations that figure out how to give this generation different opportunities and keep them happy in that way are going to be much more successful in retaining those workers,” he said.

Poojan Shah, a mechanical engineering major graduating from UMBC, wants job security and flexibility in his career, so he's going to work this fall at Northrop Grumman, which offers a rotational program for new hires to try out different departments and decide what they like.
Poojan Shah, a mechanical engineering major graduating from UMBC, wants job security and flexibility in his career, so he's going to work this fall at Northrop Grumman, which offers a rotational program for new hires to try out different departments and decide what they like. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Job security and flexibility to move within a large company attracted Poojan Shah to a job at Northrop Grumman, where the 21-year-old senior from Frederick will start work this fall. The mechanical engineering major at UMBC will enter a three-year, entry-level rotational program for recent college grads that will give him experience in three different departments, “then you can pick which department you want to work for,” he said.

He applied to other companies that offered similar rotations as well.

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“I wanted a lot of flexibility. … I want to explore what I really like and didn’t like,” Shah said. “I think our generation believes that we don’t really want to go into the first thing that gets offered. If we don’t like it, we’re going to look for something different pretty quickly, not just putting our heads down and keep doing it.”

Northrop Grumman expanded the “Pathways” program to all its business divisions several years ago and has found strong interest among college recruits, who like the idea of rotating among different customers, locations and applications, said Phyllis Villani, director of talent mobility for the defense contractor’s Linthicum-based Mission Systems sector.

“The difference with Gen Z is they want the variety,” Villani said. “They are eager to learn and try a variety of experiences so they can learn what their niche is.”

Shah also found the company’s tuition reimbursement program for advanced degrees appealing.

“We know that undergrad is not cutting it anymore,” he said. “We’re going to need a higher degree eventually to go higher up, and tuition is crazy expensive for grad school.”

Nick Moore is a 21-year-old Goucher College history major who said finding a job that will help him pay off student loans is a priority.
Nick Moore is a 21-year-old Goucher College history major who said finding a job that will help him pay off student loans is a priority. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Nick Moore, a 21-year-old studying history, historic preservation and environmental studies at Goucher College, said finding a job that will help him pay off student loans is a priority. Yet, to get a good-paying job in his interest area of historic preservation, working as a preservation advocate for low-income communities, the Massachusetts native said he’ll need a master’s degree.

So he’s looking for ways to do that without taking on more debt. This summer, he plans to work as an intern while he applies to graduate programs and seeks scholarships. And when he eventually seeks a job, he’ll look close to home so he could live with his parents to save money.

The current crop of high school students — members of Generation Z — like Snapchat, Instagram and almost everything else digital. And, according to a new

For grad school, “I’m looking for a full ride so I can work and pay off my student loans while not adding to the debt,” said Moore, who wants to combine an early interest in restoring antiques with an interest in advocacy spurred by his mother’s work as a mental health advocate.

UMBC student Opoku-Agyeman minored in economics to go along with her math degree and wants to attend grad school as well, to specialize in labor economics. But first she plans to work as a research assistant for two years in a research scholar economics program at Harvard University. She sees the transitional period before returning to school as a way to boost her resume, gain additional skills and make connections with people in the industry.

“I think there are multiple paths to getting to the same outcome,” she said. “In a world that’s rapidly changing and innovating, it’s really important for you to be flexible.”

Ultimately, she wants a job that offers security, the ability to support a family and a way for her skills to make a difference.

“We live in a digital age and when we see people making a difference, it’s amplified and spread across platforms,” Opoku-Agyeman said. “We see people our age making a difference, and it’s influential to us.”

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