How to Build Your Youngest Employees' Skills

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek February 24, 2020
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Gen Z training expectations

​Organizations committing to preparing their workforce with the skills they'll need for the future will want to keep the training and development expectations of Generation Z in mind.

Customized learning is something members of Generation Z expect from their employers, according to Jennifer Sanders, head of marketing, operations and administration for Barnes & Noble Education (BNED) Inc.'s digital student solutions segment. BNED is the parent company of Barnes & Noble College, a retail and learning company in Basking Ridge, N.J., that operates 769 campus bookstores and school-branded e-commerce sites.

A 2019 LinkedIn survey of more than 2,000 members of the generation born between 1995 and 2010 found that 43 percent want a "fully self-directed and independent approach to learning," while only 20 percent of 400 learning and development professionals surveyed said they plan to offer this level of personalized learning.  

Sanders, who works with interns from Generation Z, spoke with SHRM Online about the kind of training and development this generation—whose oldest members are 24 years old—want from employers.   

SHRM Online: Members of Generation Z are accustomed to having everything personalized. How can an employer adapt its training accordingly? Are we talking an emphasis on mentoring, for example?

Jennifer Sanders: Gen Z is a practical and entrepreneurial generation, and this means that members of this generation are generally independent self-starters. While these are great attributes, there are some workplace skills that are difficult to learn on your own, which is why I strongly believe in mentoring and one-on-one training when it comes to Gen Z employees. 

Taking the time to sit with Gen Z employees to teach them about workplace nuances can benefit both employee and employer. For example, when onboarding our social media interns, I invest the time to talk about the voice of our brand, our social media channels, and actively solicit their ideas and feedback on how to better capture the interest of Gen Z audiences. Personalized training takes time and patience, but I have found this investment yields great returns with the employees and how they can really make a difference in the work they contribute.  

SHRM Online:  A recent Barnes & Noble report on Gen Z found that 51 percent of survey respondents said they learn best by being hands-on. Does this mean employers should place more of an emphasis on apprenticeships and team projects?   

Sanders: From our research, we know that hands-on experience and using interactive devices is how Gen Z learns best. Based on this, I'd encourage employers to place an increased emphasis on learning and development programs that allow Gen Z employees to work together as they learn new skills or tasks. Because they learn best by doing, employers should consider live training courses led by managers or peers that incorporate small group activities throughout—a move that allows employees to get more direct, hands-on experience with new tasks than traditional classroom or online instruction allows for.  

SHRM Online: That same report noted the importance of tools such as podcasts, gamification, online videos, for high school and college students. Looking to the workplace, what types of tools are likely to resonate for members of this generation?

Sanders: Gen Z employees are already engaging with interactive tools prior to entering the workplace so we have an obligation to adapt as we onboard these types of employees. We expect on-demand learning platforms to be a core way to engage Gen Z employees in the workplace. Specifically, platforms like LinkedIn Learning, Slack, GroupMe and pre-recorded videos produced by colleagues and managers are tactics organizations might consider integrating into their training and L&D programs.  

SHRM Online: How can employers help employees of this generation develop soft skills, such as answering a phone and dealing with clients and customers?

Sanders: Organizations can help this generation develop soft skills by offering opportunities for job shadowing. Upon entering the workforce, young employees can observe their colleagues interacting with customers or even in internal meetings as part of the onboarding process. 

Mentoring and personalized training take time, but the benefits are worth it. We've seen this with our interns time and time again. If you give them the opportunity to hear you on a call with a client or sit with them to explain what makes an effective e-mail, they will pay attention. You'll see them pick up on these soft skills fairly quickly and before long, these skill sets become second nature. 


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