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The Class of 2022 Is Ready to Work—on Their Terms

A group of graduates in graduation gowns.

​The college graduates of 2022 are entering a labor market where jobs are plentiful. Job openings are near an all-time high (11.3 million), and employers plan to hire 32 percent more new college graduates from the Class of 2022 than they hired from the previous class, according to a new report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

That means these in-demand candidates can be more selective, and while they are maintaining some previous job-seeker behaviors observed in older members of Generation Z and late Millennials, this group has been particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and has different workplace expectations than their predecessors.

Recruiting technology provider iCIMS published its seventh annual report on college graduates' job-seeking characteristics, based on surveys of 500 HR and recruiting professionals and 1,000 recent college graduates, to understand the career expectations and aspirations of the latest entrants to the workforce.

"Entry-level candidates have had anything but a traditional college and job search experience," said Laura Coccaro, chief people officer at iCIMS. "As the workforce abruptly went virtual, so did college students—recent grads received up to half of their schooling remotely and likely had canceled or postponed internships. Hiring teams should look for ways to modernize processes, be empathetic and have realistic expectations if they want to successfully hire this generation of talent."

Christine Cruzvergara, chief education strategy officer at Handshake, a San Francisco-based platform connecting college students and new grads with employers, noted that this year's graduates have "had to face a heightened and complex number of obstacles in the last two years. Between cultural and racial reckonings, layered on top of a global pandemic and ambiguous economy, this new generation of workers is looking for a sense of stability."

Kalani Leifer, former teacher and founder and CEO of COOP Careers in New York City, helps unemployed and underemployed recent college graduates advance in their careers. Leifer remembers the cohort of new grads from the last big economic upheaval—the Great Recession of 2008-2010—beginning their first professional job search with a sense of powerlessness.

But the prospects of the Class of 2022 look very different, as the labor market made a quick recovery after the pandemic shut down the economy in 2020. "When the pandemic hit, hiring stopped and it was scary," he said. "Now I'm seeing graduates well-positioned to take advantage of the hot labor market. Gen Z is feeling powerful, but with a sense of fragility and vulnerability built in because of how quickly things can change."       

Changed Expectations

The Class of 2022, and Generation Z in general, continue to expect more from employers than previous generations, said Christy Spilka, vice president and global head of talent acquisition at iCIMS. "That's aided by the access to information at their fingertips," she said.

Leifer said he admires this age group for their entrepreneurial spirit, tendency to take risks and not compromising the vision they have for their lives.

"Gen Z doesn't consider work as the end-all, be-all. They want to enjoy life outside of work," said David Freeman, university relations manager at DISH Network, based in the Denver area. "We try to find out what their personal interests are and see if we can match those skill sets with what we need. That approach piques their interest more than the traditional recruitment pitch."

Freeman added that this group shows up to job interviews with a sense of assertiveness about what they want and the willingness to talk about things like mental health, flexibility and diversity.

"They really want to know everything, they want details and they appreciate that peek behind the curtain," he said. "Previous generations were happy to just get the job, but this generation wants to know what the day-to-day will look like and what the actual projects are that they will be working on. They ask about the culture. They want to know about their career growth plan. They want to know about wellness benefits and employee resource groups. They want to know what the company does to give back to the community."

The skill sets of Generation Z are fundamentally different, said Rebecca Croucher, senior vice president and head of North America marketing at ManpowerGroup. "They are digital natives and know how to communicate through digital forums," she said. "Graduating seniors are very comfortable with video meetings and have different ways of looking at things from a digital or process automation perspective."

Croucher said this generation is also very resourceful and seeks out the fastest way of doing something. "We gave our interns projects that we thought would take a week or two, and they did them in a few hours," she said. "They don't want to be bored; they have a need to be constantly engaged."

Salary Gap

The iCIMS research shows that there are some expectation gaps between what Generation Z job seekers want and what awaits them. The most consistent difference concerns starting salary. The Class of 2022 expect an average salary of more than $70,000, while employers expect to pay entry-level candidates just under $53,000.

"That misperception may come from the tug of war between companies going after the same talent and promising higher starting pay," Freeman said. "Talking about salary has gotten more common, and this generation is more willing to negotiate salary, which is pushing more companies to re-evaluate salary structures going forward," he said.

Spilka said that the trend toward more pay transparency, where organizations post their compensation in job ads, will help with the misalignment in starting pay expectations. "It benefits employers to know what this group is looking for in starting pay in order to have the conversation during the interview process," she said.

Flexibility Matters

Flexibility is key to how 2022 college graduates say they want to work. But employers report these entry-level job seekers have an unrealistic expectation of workplace flexibility, according to the iCIMS study. Nearly 70 percent of recent grads would like their job to accommodate remote work, although 90 percent wouldn't mind going into the office on occasion.

"This group wants some in-person experience, but there is more emphasis on flexibility to work from anywhere," Spilka said. "They certainly don't want to be told they have to be in the office every day."

The new workforce entrants may be disappointed with reality, as NACE reported that 42 percent of their entry-level positions will be fully in person, 40 percent will be a hybrid arrangement—a blend of in-person and remote—and just 18 percent will be fully remote.

"Gen Z does still hold value for in-person connections, particularly for new grads; however, they want the flexibility to create a hybrid work schedule where they can both work remotely and connect with co-workers in person," Cruzvergara said. "When surveyed, we found that many Gen Z candidates enjoyed greater control, better focus and improved quality of life that often come with a hybrid work environment."

Flexibility for Generation Z goes beyond what days they come into the office. "Some in this group would be OK working three or four days a week instead of the traditional 40-hour workweek," Croucher said. "And that's going to be hard to find in a professional role."

She added that those working fully remotely will also miss out on a lot. "They will lose out on all that can be gained from being around your colleagues in person. They will miss the camaraderie. It's different than online learning—working remotely is eight to nine hours in front of your computer at home, by yourself."

Leifer agreed that the trend toward fully remote work is worrisome. "Work shouldn't be lonely," he said. "You need peers to motivate you and hold you accountable, but you also need their help to build a network, especially early in a career."

Values Alignment

The latest crop of college grads say they work to live instead of live to work. Nearly half (49 percent) said a full-time job is "just a job" and they prioritize their personal passions. Half of respondents (48 percent) said they don't need to work a nine-to-five workday to be successful in their career, and 66 percent expect their employer to support their mental health and well-being.

"I don't know if this generation is struggling more with mental health than previous generations, or that they are more willing to talk about it," Leifer said. "It's no longer as much of a stigma."   

Croucher added that Generation Z is starting out with the mindset of focusing on themselves, something that was typically just aspirational for previous generations. "They are very aware of their needs and taking care of themselves," she said. "There are many hard workers in this generation, but they realize that just grinding it out is not sustainable."

Cruzvergara said that if employers are not building a mental health program into the existing benefits package, there's a strong chance they will miss out on attracting early-career talent.

The iCIMS research also found Generation Z looks for personal alignment with a company's mission and core values when applying for a job.

"They are a generation that not only cares deeply about the world around them—including climate change, equal pay and diversity—but is frequently challenging and encouraging corporations to have robust social responsibility programs," Cruzvergara said.

Willing to Stay (with the Right Incentives)

While younger workers have developed a reputation for job hopping, the overwhelming majority (91 percent) of the Class of 2022 surveyed by iCIMS say they care about how long they stay with an employer, and nearly 70 percent see themselves staying with an employer long-term.

"Some companies are catering to Gen Z by offering coaching and different levels of achievement on three-year career paths," Croucher said. "That's extremely attractive to new graduates."

Spilka said that the pandemic affected all job seekers, but stability is something the Class of 2022 is especially interested in when looking for a first job. "They have already experienced a lot of ups and downs during the pandemic and want to make sure their employer will be a good, stable fit," she said.


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