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The Class of 2021 Wants to Work in the Office

Only 2 percent of graduating seniors are seeking full-time remote work

A business woman using a tablet computer in an office.

​The good news is that the Class of 2021 is entering a much more advantageous labor market than graduating college seniors were a year ago. But employers and job seekers are still navigating the changes to the world of work introduced by the coronavirus pandemic, and recent research reveals a surprising preference related to one of the most consequential workplace changes of the past year—working remotely.

Even as employers are busy figuring out the best ways to transition to a hybrid remote/in-person work arrangement, 64 percent of 500 U.S. college seniors polled by recruitment software company iCIMS in April say they want to work onsite most of the time or full time, and 98 percent say they would like to work in some kind of hybrid arrangement. Only 2 percent replied that they want to work remotely full time.

College seniors' reluctance to work remotely may be due partly to a lack of work-from-home readiness on the one hand, or Zoom fatigue on the other, but the biggest factor may be the desire of Generation Z to have a traditional employment experience. The majority (88 percent) said they want to meet their co-workers in person, collaborate face-to-face and build relationships in an in-person workplace setting.

"It makes a lot of sense when you think about being a new grad, going into the workforce for the first time, wanting to have that first office experience," said Christy Spilka, global head of talent acquisition at iCIMS. "College seniors just entering the workforce want to feel that, be a part of that, experience what that is like. Especially for those early in their career, face-to-face interaction and the opportunity to work together in person is so important."  

The findings align with what candidates and new hires are expressing at Enterprise Holdings, the rental car and transportation services provider based in St. Louis, and one of the top employers of new college graduates.

"Our candidates are excited about the idea of being in person," said Marie Artim, vice president of global talent acquisition at Enterprise. "Socialization is critical. Especially as a first career job, it can be intimidating to join and onboard into an organization virtually. At that part of your career, engagement with co-workers and managers is so important, and it's difficult to do that well over Zoom."

Just 26 percent of job seekers from the Class of 2021 say remote work is a selling point; instead, the physical location of the job is a more important factor when considering whether to apply.

"I think the biggest misperception is that because Gen Z are digital natives and are very tech-savvy, that they only want to work virtually," Artim said. "This is a group that truly enjoys personal interaction. They want to connect with humans. They have expectations about personalization and speed, so using technology to streamline processes is appreciated, but they want to be around other people."

Hiring Outlook

Employers project hiring 7 percent more new college graduates from the Class of 2021 than they did from the Class of 2020, according to a report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

NACE also reports that seniors face a "more positive than expected" outlook compared to that of the Great Recession, as nearly 10 percent more employers plan to maintain or increase the number of college hires in 2021 than in 2009.

iCIMS data shows entry-level hiring patterns are returning to pre-pandemic levels, and although this year's college graduates are entering a volatile job market, nearly 60 percent of HR professionals say they are opening new positions to entry-level hires.

"Our business has bounced back, and Enterprise is refocused on hiring," Artim said. "We have a strong internship class this summer and are working toward filling our talent pipeline for the future."

Anthony Carnevale, founder and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C., forecasts "a bright economic future for the class of 2021," even though there will be speed bumps getting out of the gate. He said he expects the unemployment rate of recent college graduates to rise this year, because in addition to the roughly 2 million new bachelor's degree graduates, the economy must absorb those in the class of 2020 who are still looking for jobs.   

"Last year's graduates who are still seeking employment may face even more challenges now that they are considered long-term unemployed," Carnevale said. "Recent college graduates may also have particular difficulty finding jobs in industries hit hard by the pandemic recession. At the bachelor's degree level, workers in the leisure and hospitality, information, natural resources, transportation and utilities, and other services industries still face relatively high unemployment rates."

[Want to learn more about talent management? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

Salary Expectations

The average starting salaries for the Class of 2021 are expected to rise, particularly for computer science majors, according to NACE.  

And iCIMS data shows that the year-over-year average salary for entry-level employees is forecast to be $66,600, an 11 percent increase over 2019 and 22 percent over 2020.

"I'm excited about the salary prospects for the class of 2021," said Steven Rothberg, chief visionary officer and founder of College Recruiter, a job search site for students and recent graduates. "The employers that are hiring are offering higher wages than they were a year or two ago. The employers with the largest number of job openings are doing no hiring because they are paying $12 an hour like they were in 2019. I've never seen such rapid wage escalation for recent grads over just a few months, particularly for the students who get hired into hourly management jobs in leisure and hospitality."

Rothberg is among those who believe that the main cause of employers' current hiring difficulties is not due to a shortage of candidates, but instead to a lack of interest in jobs not paying enough.  

"It no longer pays to be loyal to your employer," Carnevale said. "Young college graduates have increased their earnings by firing their employer and taking a new job with higher pay. The best way to advance in an expanding economy is to move from job to job as prospects improve."

The Importance of DE&I

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) are critical considerations for Generation Z, according to the iCIMS survey. Among college seniors, 72 percent either strongly expect or require employers to be committed to DE&I, with 58 percent expecting to learn about the company's DE&I efforts during the interview process.

"I never would have imagined two years ago that a 22-year-old would be asking a recruiter for examples of actions that the company has taken to improve the health and safety of their employees or about their hiring process as it relates to DE&I," Rothberg said. "Gen Z wants to work in a place that aligns with their values. That has become important to them. And employers and college services offices are struggling with how best to answer these types of questions."        

Spilka said that employers can showcase their DE&I actions with video testimonials from employees on their careers page, on social media, and on sites like Glassdoor.

"Let your employees share about how they are able to bring their unique voice to the organization and in the work that they do," she said. "Talk about your employee resource or affinity groups, and how you are supporting your diversity goals."

Aurelie Richard, chief human development and strategy officer at S&C Electric Company in Chicago, has spent the last two years integrating DE&I into the organization's processes, especially talent acquisition, she said.

Richard's team supports multiple affinity groups focused on a wide range of topics and issues and enlists members of those groups during recruiting events to help answer questions and make candidates feel valued.

"Once we have identified new talent, we make a point to use a diverse panel of interviewers during the hiring process, so candidates feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to the discussion," she said. "These interview panels also give the candidate the opportunity to speak with someone from their department to talk about the work environment, office structure and workload. In some cases, it's also beneficial to offer candidates the opportunity to briefly job-shadow someone at the company who shares their background to provide greater visibility to the culture of the company and the responsibilities of the role."

Rothberg said he's seeing more employers earnestly communicating about DE&I during recruitment. "The message of 'Here is what we have done, and here is what we intend to do, and here is how we want you to be a part of the solution' is incredibly powerful to a Gen Z candidate," he said.


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