Many teens spend their summers lifeguarding or ice-cream scooping. Not Evon Lopez.
Lopez, at 16, spent the summer between her sophomore and junior years of high school interning at Abbott Laboratories. At graduation from the eight-week program last August, she delivered a PowerPoint presentation detailing, among other things, corporate safety initiatives at the health care company headquartered outside Chicago.
Sound like a snooze? To the contrary, Lopez said the experience reinforced her interest in architectural engineering.
Asked to name the highlights of the program, the teen described a visit to Abbott’s nutrition facility in Ohio where employees explained how they created formula to save infants’ lives.
“It just shows that their goal is to help as many people as they can in any way possible,” Lopez said of the company, “and that’s a place that I would like to work in.”
An interest in jobs with a greater social purpose is a hallmark of the millennial generation. But Lopez is a member of Generation Z, the post-millennial group that is just starting to graduate from high school and college and catch the interest of employers.
Gen Z is composed of the kids who were born, roughly, between 1995 and 2010 and came of age during the Great Recession.
Though it’s too soon to say how Gen Z might shape the workplace, early surveys paint a portrait distinct from the wide-eyed, self-involved image of their millennial predecessors. Gen Zers, an emerging trove of research suggests, are entrepreneurial yet pragmatic, hardworking yet easily distracted, with a streak of realism running through their desire to make a social impact.
Some employers are trying to appeal to Gen Z early, with versions of internships normally reserved for college students now being extended to high schoolers to create a pipeline of talent.
At Abbott, which started its high school internship five years ago, starting younger also is meant to address the shortfall of women and minorities in the STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — workforce, which is important as it serves an increasingly diverse customer base.
“What we want to do is increase the possibility that they will enter STEM, be successful at it and be able to go on and have meaningful careers in these areas,” said Corlis Murray, Abbott’s top engineer and leader of the high school internship program. “The younger we reach them, the higher we increase that probability.”
With the rise of early professional exposure, members of Gen Z are positioned for powerful careers, said Jeanne Meister, partner at Future Workplace, a human resources research firm in New York.
“They are definitely more serious and mature entering the workforce” than millennials, Meister said.
Assigning sweeping generalizations to a generation of 60 million people is, at best, an inexact exercise, but that doesn’t stop a steady drip of research from offering varied takes on Gen Z.
“They are radically different from millennials,” said David Stillman, co-author, with his 17-year-old son Jonah, of the book “Gen Z @ Work,” released in March.
If everyone-gets-a-trophy millennials, reared by baby boomers during flush times, prioritized passion and teamwork, then Gen Z, raised by independent Generation Xers during times of financial distress, learned that you have to fight hard to win, Stillman said.
“We have a generation entering the workforce that is extremely competitive,” said Stillman, who has written several books on how generations interact in the workplace.
Some Gen Z traits seem old-school.
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Three-quarters of Gen Zers say they are willing to start at the bottom and work their way to the top, implying a respect for paying dues, Stillman’s research found. More than 60 percent said they are willing to stay at a company for 10 years, suggesting a return to employer loyalty after the job-hopping tendencies of millennials. Only 8 percent said they want an open-office concept, despite workspace design trends that have been knocking down walls to emphasize collaboration.
But other traits are less traditional. For example, more than half of Gen Zers want to write their own job description, reflecting a desire for a hypercustomized career experience that could be driven by the personal branding that social media has pushed since they were kids, Stillman said.
That preference could draw them to small and medium-sized businesses, where employees can more easily wear multiple hats than at large companies, he said.
Indeed, a survey last year by Accenture of the 2016 graduating college class, by some measures the vanguard of Gen Z, found they are three times more likely to want to work at a small or medium company than a large one, presenting big companies with a recruiting challenge.
Some employers are being proactive by planting a seed early.
Southwest Airlines last summer hosted its third class of high school interns, who worked for eight weeks at the company’s Dallas headquarters. This fall it plans to host its first “aviation day” for kids in third through eighth grade, a free event that will include guest speakers and a tour of an aircraft maintenance hangar.
Anticipating a massive skills shortage as baby boomers retire, Greg Muccio, a senior manager in Southwest’s “people department,” said the airline industry needs to drum up excitement among youth.
“We have consciously set down a path to start reaching a much younger audience to encourage them and make them aware of a career in aviation,” he said. Some of the industry’s biggest needs are in hourly entry-level jobs that don’t require higher education, so Muccio wants to appeal to high schoolers who may not be interested in or ready for college.
Southwest this summer also will host its third summer camp for the high-school aged children of employees across the country. The three-day event of tours and games in Dallas, which last year drew 150 teens, aims to steer those already familiar with the company to careers there by showing what it takes to be a pilot or a mechanic.
The camp left an impression on Chicagoan Kyle Norbut, who participated just before starting his freshman year at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana last year. The 18-year-old acting major, who was impressed by the family atmosphere and the sense that employees were “having a ball,” intends to pursue a career in theater — but now is considering a flexible side job at Southwest.
Back at Abbott, the company is starting to see the fruits of its high school investment.
Nick Urh, who was in Abbott’s first high school internship class, went back as a college intern and now is in its professional development program, rotating through various divisions at the company. He is currently in the diabetes division in Alameda, Calif., working on glucose meters that will no longer require finger pricks.
“It really opened my eyes to the potential we had to impact so many lives,” he said.
Urh, 23, who grew up in Gurnee, Ill., and graduated last year from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is on the generational cusp. He says he identifies with both the millennial eagerness to make a social difference and the Gen Z appetite for job security — and, thanks to the internship, sees a path to achieve both.
Urh expects to be hired as a permanent employee at Abbott once the program finishes in June and hopes to pursue a career there in manufacturing operations.
“Why should I leave?” Urh said.
Music to an employer’s ears.