Why hiring younger workers may keep getting harder

For the last seven years, cloud-based HR and recruiting software company iCIMS has surveyed the job goals and passions of America’s graduating college seniors. The firm has tracked the mood of young grads during what has become an era of enormous ups and downs in the world of work: the heyday of open offices with foosball tables and exercise paths, through the abrupt lockdowns for COVID-19 and now the uncertain future of the workplace in the post-pandemic era.

The latest iCIMS survey—which it titled Class of COVID-19—points to some of the challenges for human resources leaders in keeping up with the needs of their 20-something recruits, which have been changing quickly in this time of great upheaval.

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In many ways, 2022’s new grads may be the most challenging class ever for corporate recruiters—highly selective in a wide-open labor market, driven to find companies they believe are socially responsible and with an understandable need for human interaction that has HR scrambling to fit their needs into the bigger puzzle of post-pandemic work. That’s forced companies to innovate—to find ways to share their values and to integrate these young, new hires and their quickly changing preferences into their firm’s evolving culture.

A flexible framework

In the last two years, HR leaders everywhere have been challenged to keep up with changing expectations around remote work, including among different generations of workers. For instance, in 2021, after more than a year of shutdowns in offices and college campuses, a strong majority of graduating seniors had said they craved the experience of working in an office, to work face-to-face with new colleagues and future mentors.

But as 2022’s graduation season winds down on America’s campuses, things are already changing, and quickly. As the pandemic dragged into its second year, even Generation Z has grown accustomed to working from home much of the time. In this year’s iCIMS survey of grads, a whopping 70% now say they are looking for a job that accommodates remote work, even if nine out of 10 want to visit the office at least occasionally.

See also: A former Google HR leader thinks hybrid won’t survive. Is he right?

“I think there’s a little bit of a shift where folks are looking at, OK, what is this company doing to prioritize mental health? What are they doing to prioritize work/life balance? Am I going to be able to also pursue other personal passions?” says Christy Spilka, vice president and global head of talent acquisition for iCIMS.

While it may be true that 20-somethings are more interested in working part-time from home now than earlier in the pandemic, they also remain more interested in the office experience than their veteran colleagues, according to a survey of 2022 college grads by talent and staffing agency LaSalle Network also published its survey of 2022’s college graduates. Their survey found that the 89% of seniors who wanted to come in the office at least sometimes was double the rest of the workforce.

Sirmara Campbell, LaSalle Network

“The class of 2022 entered college thinking they were embarking on a highly social, collaborative educational experience, and what ended up happening is that they learned remotely and were siloed from classmates,” says Sirmara Campbell, the LaSalle Network’s chief human resource officer. “Working in an office offers a social opportunity that these graduates likely missed out on while in school, from water-cooler chats to after-hours happy hours.”

For many incoming professionals, flexibility is at the heart of how and from where they want to work.

“While I am really hoping to work in an office, I want it to be a fun one, an office where they expect me to show up on time and get my work done but allow me the freedom to be creative in my work and work space,” Sidney Stull, a 21-year-old communications major at Boise State University told the New York Times, in its survey of graduating seniors. “I definitely want to work full-time. I love being almost too busy.”

The challenge for people managers as the class of ‘22 enters the workforce is balancing the desires of some graduates like Stull with the growing number who say that the stress of the pandemic has changed their thinking about establishing the right work/life balance, which can mean more time working from home.

Just one year ago, HR leaders at Enterprise Holdings, the rental car giant based in St. Louis, had embraced the then-zeitgeist of promoting an in-person workplace for its post-college recruits. That approach was in line with 2021 surveys showing that nearly two-thirds of that year’s graduates were looking to work in the office all or most of the time. The chief human resource officer at Enterprise, Marie Artim, at that time told the Society for Human Resource Management that her new hires were excited to begin in-person work and that “engagement with co-workers and managers is so important, and it’s difficult to do that well over Zoom.”

Enterprise Marie Artim
Marie Artim

In 2022, Artim and her fellow managers at the car rental firm have shifted gears to keep recruiting top young talent. “We understand flexibility is important, and while the vast majority of our workforce are employees working in field operations, we have found ways to offer flexibility for those employees, such as improving overall hours worked and schedule certainty,” Artim explains. “For those employees in an administrative and support role, we have moved to more flexible arrangements, ranging from hybrid, remote and in-office—that’s the expectation moving forward.”

‘Work to live,’ not ‘live to work’

Those changing desires around flexibility are largely the result of a new emphasis on self-care that surely has been driven by the need to cope with the lingering stress from the pandemic. To iCIMS’ Spilka, among the most critical findings from the organization’s research were that roughly half of the class of ‘22 (48%) feel strongly that a 9-to-5 work environment is no longer critical for a successful career. Roughly similar numbers said that a full-time job is just a job and not the sole focus of life. “They want to prioritize their personal passions,” she says.

Christy Spilka, iCIMS

Indeed, the most recent LinkedIn Workforce Confidence Survey found that Generation Z employees were much more likely than Baby Boomers in their office to say they’d accept a pay cut for a job they find more enjoyable (38%), or that offered a better work/life balance (36%) or a stronger chance to grow into their role with the company (40%).

For James Cooper-Jones, CEO of the firm Simply—which closely tracks the preferences of younger hires for the recruiting software that it develops—understanding these workplace expectations of Generation Z in a job market where applicants have gotten more choosy is critical to retaining and growing the best talent. “We believe that finding the right personality for the right role is the most critical thing,” Cooper-Jones says, noting that’s a task sometimes made harder by the remote interviews so prevalent during the pandemic.

One important way to build bonds between an employer and their new hires is awareness of a trend that was building in strength even before the arrival of the coronavirus in 2020: the strong desire among Generation Z to find employers whose work they view as socially relevant, especially in an era of fraught politics.

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“We’ve found that having a process that focuses on values is a comfort to the candidate,” Cooper-Jones explains. “The candidate needs to feel there’s a values alignment,” especially in a new environment where technology allows new hires to settle far from the headquarters, or even, he remarks, to work while traveling across the United States in a VW bus. “Pre-pandemic, it was more ‘live to work,’ but now it’s more ‘work to live.’ ”

The LaSalle Network’s Campbell agreed that “company culture” is one of the most important factors for jobseekers coming straight from college; other important areas of focus are benefits such as health coverage and an exciting location for the days when work is conducted in the office. Companies should showcase their culture on social media, host events—virtual and in-person—and produce relevant content, says Campbell. “Because of the social isolation this group experienced during the pandemic, they are seeking a workplace where they can make friends, laugh, feel like they belong and grow.”

Tech, teams and teaching

Knowing what the class of ‘22 really wants doesn’t necessarily make life easier for HR managers, who are tasked with bringing these new hires on board and integrating them into the culture of their new employers, even on days when some are in the office and others are keeping up on Zoom. At iCIMS, the software company that is headquartered in the historic Bell Labs complex in Holmdel, N.J., but has roughly 1,400 employees in locations around the globe, Spilka and her team use the latest technology to try and connect recruits and new hires to the firm’s broader mission.

Among the tools iCIMS relies on is Video Studio, one of its own products, to share employee testimonials that Spilka says “will speak to what people are looking for in an employer.” The goal, the iCIMS talent chief explains, is to reassure its Generation Z hires that their new employer is flexible and has their back in dealing with situations like mental health.

Related: 3 ways HR can support mental health as workers return to the office

“The more you can open up and share with them about your company and be transparent, the better—and the more—candidates you’re going to be able to bring into the organization,” adds Spilka, noting that many of those they recruit in the current climate have extensively researched not just the firm but even the background of its executives.

But once the new hires are on board, the increasing prevalence of hybrid work environments has, for many firms, also meant a newfound focus on highly organized team-building events. At Spilka’s company, this has meant the launch of One iCIMS Wednesdays, where employees gather both in person and over their laptops for everything from yoga to praising their co-workers’ achievements to watching the company’s chief revenue officer get doused in green slime for their amusement.

Apart from still wanting to make those those fun, social connections despite working remotely, the pandemic also didn’t diminish the desire of young people for some of the other innate advantages of office life, including the ability to make a positive impression on their new bosses and also gain valuable mentoring. HR managers like iCIMS’ Spilka and Enterprise’s Artim both say extra effort is needed to make sure new hires get one-on-one time, online or in person, with more experienced coaches. Artim says Enterprise has strived to keep its Formal Mentor Program going despite the challenges of the pandemic, to offer what she called “creative opportunities for employee connection.”

Those workers who spend time mentoring the class of ‘22 will get to get to know some of its unique quirks, such as a pandemic-inspired aversion to dressing up for the workday—with some 37% in the iCIMS survey insisting that what they wear doesn’t matter, even if their managers largely disagree. Then there is the 20-somethings’ love for cryptocurrency, with roughly one out of five expecting it as a compensation option.

In such a fast-changing world, the only thing that seems certain is that things will change again by next spring, when the class of ‘23 graduates into the labor force.

“The future of the workforce has changed,” iCIMS researchers wrote in the Class of COVID-19 report. “Employers must be strategic in their talent acquisition initiatives to transform their workforce and drive business success.”

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Will Bunch
Will Bunch is a freelance writer based in the Philadelphia region who writes on human resources and other business topics. He can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.