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In with the New: Employers make bids for youngest workforce members

2023 SBJ Economic Growth Series Content: The Search for Skilled Labor

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It’s a paradox: Employers want workers, and job seekers want jobs. But on either side of the equation, tension exists.

In an April survey of managers and business leaders by Resume Builder, three-quarters of respondents say Generation Z workers – those ages 18-26 – were more difficult to work with than other generations, and half characterized Gen Z as difficult all or most of the time.

For their part, the so-called zoomers are feeling restless, according to a March Bankrate survey of job seekers. Some 55% of them reported they were very likely to search for a job in the next 12 months, compared with 43% of millennials, 28% of Generation X and 13% of baby boomers.

That survey also found that 95% of zoomers planned to take at least one career action in the next year: either asking for a raise, asking for more flexibility, quitting or relocating.

None of this is a surprise to Jonathan Bell, founder of Bell’s Marketing Consultant LLC, which specializes in the demographic. Bell started his company in 2020 at the age of 16 and offers insight on Gen Z issues to businesses.

Bell, 19, characterized his generation as entrepreneurial and unabashed.

“Gen Z is a very verbal, very outspoken generation,” he says. “A lot of employers are not able to accept that or face those challenges.”

One thing they’re vocal about is that minimum wage just won’t do, Bell says.

In this, Gen Z isn’t all that different from other workers. The Bankrate survey asked respondents for the job quality most important to them as they move forward in their careers, and 30% say higher pay, with only 13% citing flexible working hours and 12% the ability to work remotely.

Locally, business leaders responding to Springfield Business Journal’s 2023 Economic Growth Survey ranked the barriers employees report to keeping a job at their company, and 52% ticked better wages and benefits for the top spot. No other factor broke double digits in the survey.

Bell says in his opinion, even more important than money for Gen Z workers are benefits and security.

“Most of them have a side hustle to help them meet financial goals,” he says.

The SBJ survey found workers were trying lots of strategies to pull in workers. Among these were pay increases, offered by 64%; flexible schedules, 47%; enhanced benefits, 40%; and continuing education, 34%.

Neither party can survive without the other, but the challenge is finding ways to get them to connect.

Swooping in
Generational stereotypes aside, many Springfield employers would be more than happy to hire Gen Z workers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an unemployment rate of 2.8% for the Springfield metropolitan statistical area in July.

Robert Randolph, executive director for the Center for Advanced Manufacturing at Ozarks Technical Community College, says interest is high among employers for students with technical education and skills.

He described a rapid networking event held during class hours each fall. In it, students are split into small groups and put into a rotation that allows each group a few minutes to interact with multiple employers.

“We have very frequent requests from local industries that want to engage,” he says. “Many employers are taking any chance they can to speak to our students to get their brand out there. It’s pretty competitive for skilled graduates.”

On occasion, he says students leave the rapid networking event with leads on future employment.

“We have had some students that have met a company and have hit that right connection,” he says. “We ask that companies don’t really take that opportunity and hire them full time where they can’t finish. We need them to graduate, and they need them to graduate as well. It’s in everybody’s best interest.”

A September career fair is designed for that purpose, he says, and students attend dressed appropriately to meet potential employers and with resumes in hand. That’s the perfect time for a job offer to be extended, Randolph says – not when students have a program to finish.

“I compare that to eating seed corn,” he says.

Mark Miller, chief media relations officer at OTC, says many of the school’s students are in Gen Z, but others are millennials or even Gen Xers.

“Those with the specialty skills are in high demand,” Miller says.

Some employers have worked methodically with OTC for a number of years to cultivate future team members, Miller says. One of these is SRC Holdings Corp., which for 15 years has had a program that pays for workers to earn their associate degree.

At other times, the hiring activity is somewhat more frenzied, according to Miller.

“The first year of our line worker program – it’s a two-year program and we had guys do their internships in the summer, and some electric co-ops just hired them right away,” he says. “We shifted around a few things to let them finish, because it really benefits them if they can finish their degree.”

Randolph says local industries are rapidly adopting part-time employment for students.

“It’s flexible for the students and allows them to get their foot in the door while they’re still in school,” he says. “It gives the student and employer both kind of a trial run.”

Missouri State University also aims to connect students and recent graduates with employers. In the fall semester, a new section of the university’s website was launched to help businesses build their teams by hiring full-time employees from among recent MSU grads, finding part-time employees among current students or employing graduate students through paid assistantships.

While addressing business leaders at the 10th anniversary celebration of MSU’s Efactory business incubator in July, Brad Bodenhausen, the university’s vice president of community and global partnerships, indicated the opportunities are important to students and employers alike.

“They add to the student experience at Missouri State, but maybe most importantly for you, they add to your talent development pipeline,” he told the group of about 100. “You have a chance to try somebody out as a potential new member of your team, and ideally keep them in Springfield.”

Place matters
The Network, a networking and advocacy group for professionals under the age of 40, is another organization that is working to keep new talent in the city. Bryant Young is the group’s chair.

Young says one focus of The Network is to engage young professionals, including those who live in the city to work remotely.

“So often people used to pick where they live because that’s where the job was, but now the decision is kind of flipped,” he says. “We’re trying to think of ways to engage remote workers and help them understand that there is a community of young professionals here that would love to engage with them.”

The Network also visits college classrooms and offers engagement events.

“We want to help them see you can build a fun, fulfilling existence in Springfield,” Young says.

The goal is to make Springfield sticky, he says.

“If we can get them plugged in with a church group, an arts group or a service group, they’re less likely to start looking elsewhere,” he says.

Challenges exist in the city. SBJ’s 2023 Economic Growth Survey identified housing prices as a pain point, with 57% of employers reporting home or rental prices as negatively impacting their ability to recruit and retain workers.

Citing projects like the renaturalization of Jordan Creek downtown and the beauty of existing greenway trails, Young says quality of place is appealing to younger members of the workforce.

“The city is trying to make cool stuff happen around our community,” he says. “We think these are the kinds of things that can get people to stay.”

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