The workforce landscape is currently experiencing a significant influx of Generation Z graduates. These individuals, born between the late-1990s and early 2000s, bring with them a wealth of talent, fresh perspectives, and a genuine desire to create meaningful impact. However, they are also facing a myriad of unique challenges that previous generations have not encountered and may not be able to understand or relate to.
According to new research from IMI, Gen Z graduates face a substantial disconnect between the skills they possess upon graduation and those demanded by the contemporary workplace. This gap is exacerbated by their disrupted education during the pandemic and the mainly remote working environments they enter. Having spent much of their lives online, many Gen Z graduates lack critical social and interpersonal skills traditionally developed through in-person interaction and peer learning.
“Many clients are reporting a relatively sudden dilemma facing young talent as it struggles with onboarding, which appears to be a direct result of the pandemic, with pre-covid and post-covid graduates displaying different traits,” says Julie Ryan, Head of Customised Executive Education at IMI. “Without the opportunity to learn and practice these skills in person, Gen Z’ers are particularly struggling to navigate the social dynamics of the workplace.”
Critically, this skills gap is hindering graduates’ ability to effectively contribute within their organizations. Interpersonal skills, communication abilities, and emotional intelligence are vital for effective teamwork, collaboration, and relationship-building. However, many Gen Z employees are showing a lack of confidence when it comes to asserting themselves, both with senior stakeholders and each other. One reason suggested for this gap is the rapid evolution of digital technology and its integration into the workplace and beyond.
Graduates also have high expectations regarding career progression and work-life balance, which can create a clash between the traditional hierarchical structures of organizations and Gen Z’s desire for autonomy, flexibility, and “meaningful” work. Gen Z wants organizations to mirror their values and demonstrate visible commitment to sustainability, DE&I, mental health, etc. Balancing these expectations is a delicate task for graduates and employers, especially if the latter are from a generation that prioritized a traditional benefits package and where a job was just a job, not a higher calling.
IMI has been supporting graduates transitioning from academia to the world of work for 20 years and is well-placed to comment on the situation. “For 20 years, we have been supporting graduates transitioning from the world of academia to the world of work, and employers want to see personal leadership begin at the point of career entry,” says Julie Ryan. However, Gen Z employees need even more additional support and training in communication and relationship-building skills than pre-covid peer on-boarders. Mentorship and coaching opportunities are key to developing the Gen Z workforce, along with offering capability-building training and development programs.
IMI research shows onboarding is at the core of helping companies build, retain, and engage highly effective teams, recommending that organizations put connection and empathy at the center of this process. Gen Z ranks a “sense of belonging” in their top three concerns, and organizations should take note of the 56% increase in job performance when employees feel like they belong.
Because investing in Gen Z employees is a two-way, mutually beneficial street. For example, by pairing Gen Z graduates with experienced professionals through mentorship programs, companies can facilitate knowledge transfer and help bridge the skills gap. In return, seasoned professionals can benefit from the fresh perspectives and innovative ideas brought forth by the younger generation through reverse mentoring, especially when it comes to technology and digital tools.
The skills gap is not specific to Gen Z. McKinsey has estimated that at minimum 375 million jobs will be displaced by automation and AI by 2030, while the recent OECD Skills Strategy Report claims that Ireland is dangerously at risk of falling behind if it does not invest in continuous learning and upskilling initiatives. The task confronting every economy, particularly advanced economies, will be to retrain and redeploy tens of millions of workers of middle-aged, mid-career workers, whose current skills and capabilities may be rendered obsolete by rapidly evolving technologies.
By contrast, Gen Z graduates possess an innate ability to adapt to new tools and platforms, acquire new technical skills, and embrace emerging technologies. Their intuitive understanding of digital platforms and trends may prove invaluable to organizations navigating the complexities of the digital age. Moreover, Gen Z graduates have a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a desire for continuous learning. Under the right conditions, this mindset fosters innovation and organizational adaptability, with graduates more open to challenging the status quo and exploring new possibilities.
Gen Z has the potential to bring fresh perspectives and offer unique insights that not only allow businesses to stay relevant but also drive growth. However, to harness their potential, organizations must invest in their development and provide them with the necessary support and training to navigate the challenges of the contemporary workplace. By doing so, they can create a mutually beneficial relationship that fosters innovation, growth, and success.