Young Professionals Roundtable: What Drives Millennial and Gen Z Job Seekers

By 2025, millennials — people born between 1981 and 1996 — will make up three quarters of the global workforce. Gen Z — those born after 1996, between the ages of 15 and 24 — will make up nearly 20%. Meanwhile, as the U.S.’s overall unemployment rate increased by more than 11 percentage points due to the COVID-19 pandemic, workers aged 16–29 accounted for a third in the ride in unemployment despite only making up less than a quarter of the labor force. With more qualified candidates graduating and entering the workforce each year, plus the already immense pool of existing Gen Z and millennial talent already available to pick from, it’s becoming increasingly important for companies to focus their recruiting efforts on these younger generations.

To find out more about what draws these generations to certain organizations, DiversityInc hosted a roundtable with three early career professionals, discussing their career origins, what drew them to their current industries, and what challenges they’ve already faced early on in their career journeys. The discussion included Matt Greene, a tech development program engineer I at AT&T (DiversityInc Hall of Fame); Leahannah Taylor, a specialist in the neuromodulation division of Abbott (No. 8 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020); and Kyra Williams, a research associate in the executive search group for talent acquisition at TIAA (No. 9 in 2020). Greene graduated from Stanford University in 2019 with a degree in computer science; Taylor received her master’s in biomedical sciences at Rutgers University in 2019; and Williams graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in urban studies and affairs in 2018.

The following is a transcript of the discussion, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Olivia Riggio: First off, thanks for joining us today! As we get started, could each of you describe your positions and how you got hired?

Matt Greene: Certainly. Currently, I’m in the technology development program at AT&T. I started working at AT&T in July 2019, as a TDP [Tech Development Programming] Engineer One. Back in 2018, I was in a career development program and one of the people in the program reached out to me and said that the technology development program could be a great program for me. So, I went through the interview process and attended a live event, which then led to me receiving an offer. And I love it so far. It’s been great for me.

Kyra Williams: I’m a research associate for the executive search group at TIAA which means that we primarily recruit for the executive positions, C-Suite and their direct reports. My job is primarily being a LinkedIn stalker of sorts. And we’re within talent acquisition, it’s a pretty cool niche group within the firm. I was hired in the spring of 2018.

Leahannah Taylor: Currently, my role is as a clinical specialist at Abbott. I just had the opportunity to help bring our life-changing spinal cord stimulator technology into use with chronic pain patients. I currently help to connect physicians, our therapy and patients in order to provide them an effective treatment for their pain relief. It’s been an awesome opportunity.  I’m able to help serve my community-at-large both in an office setting as well as in the operating room.

OR: When you were job hunting, what drew you each to the ads that you applied to? What made a job posting interesting or more desirable? And what were the red flags that immediately turned you away from certain postings?

LT: First and foremost, knowing what I wanted to do was certainly important. It helped me to be able to sift through positions that strayed from my career goals. I ultimately kept an open mind while staying true to my core beliefs. When I found job positions that I was interested in, I would go to the company website and look for any employee spotlights of employees that look like me or people who were making a tremendous impact on the company. As for red flags, seeing any job postings with any spelling errors or very vague job descriptions, or even positions that required an extensive amount of experience I did not currently have at the time told me there might be a potential issue if I applied.

KW: I definitely agree with the job requirements and years of experience, because I feel like that’s been an extreme deterrent for a lot of job seekers straight out of college: seeing a minimum requirement of five to seven experience needed. For me, a huge deterrent was also location. I think I was just pretty laser-focused on being in New York City early in my career. But I think once I opened up my job search to other places my acceptance rate went up and my options became larger. But you know, what drew me into my company specifically was their mission — it’s a values-based financial services company. And I feel like that’s relatively rare to find, a community-oriented company that operates like a big bank. Financial services have a certain reputation so it was nice to have a different environment. 

OR: Did you think you were going to end up in financial services before working at TIAA?

KW: I thought I was going to be a city planner. So, I completely did a 180, but that’s a whole other story. But I studied in undergrad how cities come to be and so I marketed myself as someone who understood how people “come to be” in an organization. So, I think that’s somewhat how I got the job. 

OR: Matt, you had some experience at AT&T before you landed the current position with the company, correct?

MG: Yes. My experience was through an AT&T live recruiting event. I’d also been in contact with recruiters at AT&T, but I didn’t have any internships prior to getting hired.

OR: What drew you in? Did you apply to other jobs at other places, and were there certain red flags you saw or certain common threads that you were drawn to?

MG: For me, the rotational aspect of AT&T’s technology development program really enticed me. Location was really important to me. I’m from New York City but I wanted to be more so on the West Coast, so having a position in LA really drew me in. Some red flags, I agree job postings that say, “You must have seven years of experience in this one skill set” can seem overwhelming when you are a new college graduate. It’s just not really realistic. That’s definitely a red flag and something I’ve seen throughout the industry, which is unfortunate. But luckily, AT&T didn’t have those ridiculous requirements. Everything about the recruiting event I went to, including the recruiting process was very, very good for me.

OR: Many companies want you to have the experience to get the job. But you need the job to get the experience. That’s what makes entry-level job applications such a minefield. Did any of you have a process or methodology that you followed while you were job hunting? Were you selective, or did you cast a wide net?

MG: For me, at first, I didn’t necessarily have any methodology or process while job hunting. I was really just applying to dream jobs I had pre-college. Just sending my resume out there and trying to get into the interview process. However, after going through various rounds with various companies, I decided it’d be best for me to kind of dig into my network. I reached out to see if there was anything out there for me. And luckily, the career development program I was part of [Management Leadership for Tomorrow] really guided me not only on how to network and have that elevator pitch ready but also how to do my best behaviorally and technically during an interview.

OR: Leahannah, did you find networking to be similarly important in the medical field as well?

LT: I did. I found it to be of crucial importance. Obviously, having the background and the experience is one thing. However, really digging into your LinkedIn network is something that I also found quite useful. Whether it’s reaching out to someone to get a better idea of the culture of the company that I would be applying to or even just some further insight on this specific position that I was in applying to, I found networking to be incredibly useful to my job process, which initially started out quite broad. But as I homed in on my specific wants and needs and a position, my search was narrowed. I wanted to have patient contact, I wanted to collaborate with physicians, and remain in the operating room and I was able to find that and more here at Abbott.

OR: Kyra, was there anything that you did in your job application process that stuck out to you that was useful, especially because you ended up somewhere where you didn’t necessarily expect yourself to end up?

KW: I definitely would agree with everything that’s been said about tapping into your network. I think that’s a crucial step of the process. And you never know who it is that’s going to help you — it could be someone you met at a career fair or one of your professors or someone you met in a club. As for submitting applications, I was somewhat selective in what I thought I wanted to do. Then I got a cluster of rejections and realized I had to reassess and reevaluate. I believe that you can’t be too picky because it’ll limit the pool and limit your exposure, ultimately. Some of the best opportunities may end up being what initially wasn’t on your radar. But once you start to expand your mind and your options, that’s when the real opportunities start to flow. I think part of being young is being laser-focused on what you think you want — but you never know. A diamond in the rough might be out there and you just weren’t looking for it.

OR: The process can kind of seem like a black box. You send your application to this third-party database, and you might get a no-reply confirmation email, you might not. And you don’t know what happens to it after that. I have a lot of friends who are searching for jobs now. And it’s especially hard because of the pandemic. Like you said, somebody you meet at a restaurant or in a club could be somebody who can give you an opportunity or give you a lead, and you don’t have that right now. So, making connections is essential. And as you move through the process, so too is doing well in the interview stages. Once each of you got to the interview stage for your current positions and you were able to connect with somebody, what was that part of the process like? Were your interviews over the phone? Were they in-person? And what would you change about it if you could?

KW: The best part of interviewing for me is being able to pick up on formulas of sorts. I think when you’re answering behavioral questions, you begin to realize a method. I like a formula that helps you to concisely get your point across without stammering or wasting anybody’s time. It’s also a lot more effective when you first start out interviewing; all of the rejections ultimately end up working in your favor because practice makes perfect. They’re also the worst part too because the rejection is hard. But I think once you really focus and [workshop] your craft, then you can become a more effective candidate and really knock it out of the park towards the end.

OR: How about you, Leahannah? How was the interview process for you?

LT: Because I was hired prior to the pandemic, I did have an in-person interview. I really did like what Kyra said in reference to becoming better after those rejections. It speaks to the power of pivoting. Rerouting after a closed door isn’t always bad. It just means that where there’s a closed door, there can be an open window. I think we can agree that the interview process can be quite intimidating. I know one thing that helped me navigate my experience was tons of practice and tons of preparation.

Overall, my interviews were a bit of a mixed bag. Interviews are an important time to assess, not only from the company’s perspective like “is this a right fit for this candidate?” It’s also time for us to assess, like “is this job position a right fit for me?” Assessing the climate of the interview and understanding which job environment you work best in can really help you make decisions. As a job hunter, you also have to remember that there are tons of things that are beyond our control. Our employers who are seeking to fill a position also have daily job duties every single day. So, keeping all of those things in mind can really help to mitigate the nerve-wracking nature of the interview process.

OR: There’s a common stereotype today with younger people, that we don’t like to meet in person, or that we prefer text messages and emails to actual in-person communication. That idea also obviously impacts the interviewing process. What are your thoughts on communication for young people just beginning their careers?

KW: I feel like all of that is true, actually. Not communicating in-person is a lot less scary and daunting, and you can be your authentic self. And potential employers don’t really have to see all of you. Also, you might be able to pull off a cheat sheet here and there on an interview or something and they’ll never know. So, I guess the best part of being a millennial is you can be savvy like that.

MG: For me, I personally prefer communicating in-person, rather than virtually. I was working at AT&T for about nine months in person. And then, since the pandemic, we’ve been working online for about nine months. Looking back at both, I definitely do enjoy the benefits of working from home such as not having to travel. However, I also definitely see the benefits of working in-person. I think ideas can be conveyed in a better manner, and I also think that stuff works more efficiently in-person as well. For me, having that human connection in-person means a lot more to me than virtual connections.

LT: There are certain things that you can convey in-person that are a lot more difficult to convey over the phone or in a Zoom meeting. That important, collaborative and inclusive environment that can be found in a workplace is very hard to match virtually. I think there’s a misconception that we would prefer working from home. But we really do enjoy the connectivity and the collaboration an in-person environment provides.

OR: Does anybody have any job-hunting horror stories where you might have been looking at a company and feeling them out, and there was a red flag when you knew immediately that a position wasn’t right for you?

MG: I can share a quick anecdote, just about the software engineering process or industry as a whole. For me, the experience at AT&T has been great. However, during my interview process with some other companies, I found some of the other engineers to be kind of emotionless, which definitely impacted my opinion of the company as a whole. Obviously in an interview, you have to be a little stoic to not show the candidate whether they’re giving a right or wrong answer. However, I feel like they could have added a little bit of personality into the interview. Without it, it really just made me feel like I was doing terrible the whole interview because they weren’t really reacting in any way.

OR: Sometimes it feels like if you can’t feed off of the other person’s energy, you’re just talking to a wall. And that’s going to make your interview worse.

LT: I recall having a string of very tense and stuffy interviews that were very similar. An interview is really a sneak peek into the culture of what you can expect from a job on a daily basis. So immediately after those string of interviews, I knew that those positions probably would not be the best fit for me. Unlike my Abbott interview, where it was very reflective of the work environment that I wanted to be in. So, it’s important to assess and reference your strengths and the best work environment that you can work in, in order to really be selective in the job that you not only interview for but also accept.

KW: I feel like the interview process can be a bit like dating. It’s terrible when you feel led on and you really like the person or company and then you feel like you nailed it in the final round and meet a bunch of people and get interviewed by several people — and then you get a rejection. It’s the worst feeling. But all those rejections ultimately helped me to that golden ticket so the practice is worth it in the end.

OR: Go back a few years ago, when you declared your major in college. Where did you think you were going to be today? How does that compare to where you are now?

MG: I actually changed majors in college. When I started, I was an economics and political science major. When I got to my sophomore year, I decided to change to a computer science major. If I were to change one thing, I would start out as a computer science major, because it would have given me a bit more time, to not have to rush through a couple of classes. I also didn’t really have any software engineering-specific internships during my college years. That’s what I really valued in the job at AT&T — a rotational aspect where I could figure out which part of the industry I wanted to be in.

LT: I always knew I wanted to be in the medical field. I did change my majors a few times during undergrad, but ultimately, they were all science-related. Grad school gave me the opportunity to really reflect on what I wanted. I knew coming out I wanted to have a position that was challenging, where I could leverage my knowledge and my previous experiences to essentially create positive change in the lives of my patients. So, my search was a bit broader in the beginning. But I kept and held true to the things I truly wanted to do: patient interaction, … collaboration and being on the forefront of medical technology. The core of what I was looking for did not change.

OR: I think that our generation, millennials and Gen Zs, are often stereotyped as a very socially and politically active group. And I’m wondering if issues in any of these realms played a role in your job search? If so, how does your employer meet your values?

KW: As I mentioned before, I really didn’t think I was going to land where I did. But I’m eternally grateful for my company because I think they really allowed me to unapologetically be myself, which is rare in any financial services company. At work in general, I think it’s hard to feel free, to show up as your whole authentic self. My company’s extremely supportive of my outside endeavors and what I’m involved with community-wise, including what I believe or think about the world. I’m very vocal about things I’m passionate about to my manager and coworkers. My company is a retirement company that primarily helps teachers save to and through retirement. And I think, morally, and values-wise, I couldn’t have landed in a better location because they are sort of public servants, but in a financial-services mask. For me, it’s been the best of both worlds.

MG: It definitely played a role for me. Seeing how AT&T is committed to diversity, how they’ve been a leader in that area over the past decade especially, as well as how they’ve been working with underprivileged communities was a huge draw. And that’s something I really saw during recruiting and learning more about the company’s culture. I also really appreciated the company’s focus on work-life balance, especially given everything that’s happened this year, being more upfront and transparent with what goes on within the company. These aspects really aligned with me: work-life balance and getting the resources to go out and serve the community.

LT: Corporate values also played quite a large role in my decision of where I wanted to work, specifically the company’s social commitment. I regard diversity and inclusivity very highly. And a company’s values in those areas was certainly something I considered when I was looking for positions I wanted to apply to. Diversity is also important not only in race but also in terms of life experience and schools of thought — those were all things I looked at when I was starting out.

OR: Do you think the desire to align with a company’s core values is more important for younger generations than it is for older generations? Do you think companies are increasingly having to work on philanthropy or other areas of corporate responsibility in order to attract younger jobseekers?

KW: I think, as we are hurling towards future generations taking over, many businesses need to perform a complete restructuring of D&I efforts and community service efforts, internally. And as Matt said, in light of everything that’s happened this year, 2020 was that awakening. It ignited a flame in a lot of firms that there was a necessity to restructure a lot of these programs and internal systems of just how we educate and support our diverse population, whether those be clients or employees. I really am excited that more and more companies are paying attention to what needs to be done. I am excited that young people are trying to be that change, drawing attention to what needs to be done to help our underserved and underrepresented populations — in business and outside as well.

LT: There’s also the misconception about our generation that we don’t necessarily value hard work, or that a lack of extensive, expansive experience kind of disqualifies our input. What I do wish employers had an understanding of is that we do value hard work, but we also value working smart. We seek to streamline processes and make systems more efficient.

MG: This is especially true when you come into older, more established companies that may have some old technological processes they rely on. Young new hires may be able to come into these companies and improve them, using new technologies that hadn’t previously been put into place. I’ve definitely seen that happen within my own experience. There’s a language called Python that’s able to do some cool things within analytics, and it hasn’t been leveraged within some of AT&T’s systems. I was able to bring some of my knowledge into discussions and some of my skill sets to help improve existing processes. I think that’s definitely one misconception that needs to be corrected: that we’re not able to make an impact within our companies early on because of our age. I think we’re able to provide more and more of an impact at a younger age.

KW: I would also definitely agree with the working smarter, not harder idea that Leahannah mentioned. I think it’s definitely in our nature to cut corners where we can, but I think internally it’s just trying to be more efficient. I think a common misconception is that millennials and Gen Z are selfish and typically apathetic. But I think sometimes it’s being career-oriented or just caring about general causes that benefit your growth. Taking wellness or mental health days might come across as being selfish or lazy, but I think we live in a burnout society. We’ve gotten to this point where there’s not a lot of delineation between your workday and your weekends, and you’re always on call. And now especially, we’re always on camera, so there’s a lot more room for becoming completely stressed out and exhausted since you’re always on. Taking time for yourself is never really a bad thing and wellness is extremely important, especially now.

OR: I think an increase in mental health awareness is one of the defining characteristics of our generation. I think it is pushing us to become a bit of a kinder world. It’s going to take some time, and there’s always going to be a stigma. But I think, ultimately, like you said, it does add to efficiency.

And some final thoughts: What are some unique strengths that you think our generation brings to the table?

 MG: I just think we may have a more holistic view of the world than older generations. Because we grew up in the social media age, we’ve been tuned to look at things globally instead of locally. Obviously, I think it’s still really important to look at things at a local level because that’s where we can serve our communities the best. But I think having this global viewpoint also gives us a unique purview into various aspects of our industries that you might not have if you just looked at things narrowly and more locally.

LT: I can certainly agree with that. I also think one of our major strengths is that we’re very innovative thinkers. We are not afraid to challenge outdated systems. And we don’t necessarily go along with doing something just because that’s the way it’s always been done. We seek to make workplaces a lot more productive and inclusive, and that’s essentially what we’ve become accustomed to through this age of social media. We’re accustomed to creating connections despite distance and really coming together for a common cause. 

KW: I would say — I mentioned that we are perceived as apathetic — but I would say our generation and Gen Z is one of the most empathetic generations that I’ve ever witnessed. I think we care more and promote inclusivity and acceptance more than any other generation. I think bringing that into the workplace creates a huge advantage. And I think our future is looking bright with all of the inclusive and diverse minds working towards that common goal.

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