College for America Blog

How Do Gen Z Employees Learn? A Guide for Employers of Young Professionals


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Posted In: Academics

Apr • 26 • 2019

How does Gen Z learn?

Idea in brief
A roundup of what research and surveys tell us about Gen Z employees and what that will mean for learning and development professionals.

If Generation Z employees aren’t already in your workplace, they soon will be. Of the roughly 61 million people born between the mid-1990s and the mid to late 2000s, the oldest are in their early to mid twenties.

In another 15 years, they could be the largest segment of the workforce. According to a Nielsen report, Generation Z accounts for 26% of the U.S. population, putting them ahead of millennials (22%) and baby boomers (24%).

While it may be tempting to think of Gen Z employees as just an extension of the millennial generation, there are subtle differences in their experiences that may impact their learning styles that employers should be aware of.

For one, Generation Z employees are true digital natives in the sense that they’ve grown up with smartphones and other digital devices at their fingertips. Millennials, by contrast, came of age as the digital revolution exploded, so they remember a time without smartphones.

As they start their careers, Generation Z is faced with a vastly different entry-level job market. As a Deloitte Insights essay, “Generation Z enters the workforce,” notes, today’s entry-level positions require not only knowledge of advanced technologies, but also critical thinking and analytical skills.

Employers will have to provide some form of training for their Gen Z recruits. As several sources summarized below show, Gen Z may have unique ways of learning, but they are generally eager to learn.

“I’m here. Teach me.”

Generation Z views a college degree as just one step in their educational journey. They realize they must continue their learning while in a job, as evidenced by a recent Deloitte survey in which only 26% of Generation Z respondents agreed that college taught them the required workplace skills. Conversely, 44% assessed on-the-job training as more valuable.

Those findings were echoed in a Robert Half survey identifying the top 3 factors this group desires in a future employer:

1. Career advancement opportunities
2. A manager I can learn from
3. Professional development and training opportunities

Likewise, 84% of the respondents to a 2017 survey of Gen Z attitudes by Accenture said they expected their first employer to provide formal training.

Generation Z employees want to work for a company that helps them advance their careers.

A soft skills gap?

Where might Gen Z need training? Three recent studies tell an inconsistent story overall but do show that “soft skills” are a concern.

When asked if colleges were graduating students with the skills necessary for today’s workforce, employers and Gen Z college graduates voiced widely different viewpoints in a Cengage survey. In nearly every category from soft skills (communication, critical thinking and working with others) to technical capabilities, employers said the graduates lacked those skills by a wide margin compared to how Gen Z graduates viewed themselves.

A LinkedIn Learning survey found a similar gulf. More than 60% of Generation Z respondents rated learning rapidly evolving hard skills above soft skills. Meanwhile, 61% of learning and development executives said this newest generation to enter the workforce requires soft skills training.

The Accenture report “Gen Z Rising,” however, shows more awareness by young professionals that they need to develop problem-solving, communication and management skills.

They expect video

Having grown up in the age of YouTube and Instagram, Generation Z’s preferred mode of learning slants toward the visual.

In fact, a recent Harris Poll found 60% of people between the ages of 14 and 23 look to YouTube when they want to gather information, and nearly the same percentage said the video-sharing platform contributed to their education.

They’re proactive learners

When a Generation Z learner wants information, they’re unlikely to wait for a pre-scheduled session, meeting with an instructor or a lecture. Instead, they’ll search for answers on their own.

According to the LinkedIn Learning survey, 43% of Gen Z respondents expressed a preference for a fully self-directed learning program. (The same survey found only 20% of L&D and HR leaders planned to offer that type of learning program.)

They’re “social” learners

Communicating with friends via Facebook and other social media platforms comes naturally to this generation. They expect online environments that allow them to share and collaborate with peers and mentors.

Another advantage to social learning is the ability to provide continual feedback to the Generation Z employee — something they desire. In fact, 66% of respondents in the “The State of Gen Z 2018” by the Center for Generational Kinetics said they want feedback from supervisors every few weeks or more.

Independent work has its limits

Just because they’re used to living in the digital age doesn’t mean Generation Z disregards all in-person interactions. A study by Robert Half concluded this group actually desires working with a mentor or teaming up with others face to face.

More than 60% ranked working collaboratively with a small group in an office as their preferred work situation.

They aren’t necessarily as “tech savvy” as many assume

As tech investor Ryan Craig writes in “The Dangerous Myth of the Digital Native,” growing up in tech environments doesn’t necessarily mean young people are naturally adept at business software applications.

“Today’s students are accustomed to simple interfaces,” Craig said. “But simple interfaces are possible only when the function is simple, like messaging or selecting video entertainment. Today’s leading business software platforms don’t just manage a single function.”

The ability to navigate a complex enterprise application and to use it strategically probably depends more on an individual’s education than on their generation. It requires problem-solving, research and analysis skills, for example.

They like to learn “on the go”

Generation Z could be considered the first truly mobile generation. The Gen Z study by Center for Generational Kinetics reported 95% currently own a smartphone, with a quarter saying they’ve owned one since age 10. Many report anxiety if they are away from their phones for more than 30 minutes, and two-thirds frequently use their phones after midnight.

Gen Z is used to doing everything from shopping to browsing the news on their mobile device anytime, anywhere. So for this generation, a mobile learning experience is a must.

Takeaways: What’s unique about Gen Z employees?

In summary, some clear tendencies probably exist within the newest cohort of young professionals, though none of these characteristics are universal, of course.

Learning and development leaders should keep in mind that, to a greater degree than before, their youngest hires:

  • Are eager to learn.
  • Are self-directed.
  • Have fewer offline social experiences.
  • Expect well-designed digital tools with little friction for the user.
  • Share more and expect more input and feedback.

Knowing exactly how to tailor learning opportunities in this context isn’t easy to predict. On the one hand, you want to be aware of emerging tactics and technologies that may be more attractive to Generation Z workers — such as gamification and virtual reality applications — without chasing trends unnecessarily.

On the other hand, you don’t want to default to what has worked in the past without considering how learners and their needs are changing.

That’s why you need to ask strategic questions about your education partners that get to the heart of the matter: Is this learner-centered innovation and learning-centered program designed to keep up with how workers are changing?

If you want to have a conversation about which online learning programs may be right for your Generation Z workers, contact the Workforce Partnerships team at Southern New Hampshire University about our 200+ online degree programs.