CPA INSIDER

Generation Z hits the workplace

Finance jobs can be a great fit for this group that values stability and growth.
By Sarah Ovaska-Few

Generation Z, roughly defined as those born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s, is the next wave of Americans to hit adulthood and, much like every generation before them, to change how we work and how we approach work.

Yes, they may text instead of picking up the phone, and many will look for flexible schedules that get them out of the 9-to-5 mindset.

But studies are showing that this generation wants to roll up their sleeves and work and are interested in careers like accounting that can promise financial stability and opportunities over the years, said Brett Good, senior district president at global staffing firm Robert Half. A 2015 survey of nearly 800 Generation Z members then between the ages of 18 and 25 predicted they would have four employers over the course of their career, a sign that the right employer could keep their talent for years to come. That's a departure from the preceding Millennial generation, which has tended to change jobs frequently in pursuit of their career goals.

"They're competitive. They're worried about security, job satisfaction," Good said about Gen Z, who are expected to make up 20% of the overall workforce by 2020. "They don't anticipate jumping around as much."

Of course, every individual has their own attributes, work styles, and abilities. It's important for firms and supervisors to recognize that when thinking about how to approach generational tendencies, said Paloma Shah, the campus recruitment program manager for Rehmann, an accounting and financial services advisory firm with more than 900 associates in Michigan, Ohio, and Florida.

That said, here's insight into some of the overarching trends driving this group of incoming CPAs, with advice on ways firms can maximize their potential.

They care about career paths and salaries. Of course every member of every generation cares about the size of their paycheck, but Generation Z is more focused on this than other generations were starting out, Good said, largely because they grew up during the Great Recession and many saw parents or others in their communities struggle with the unemployment, foreclosures, and personal bankruptcies that followed.

That's translated to a sharper focus on finding jobs with stability, and this generation is asking more than their predecessors about benefits and career progression when they walk in the door. They also want an employer they can grow with.

"Accountants and CPA organizations can really take advantage of this," Good said. "There's a desire for a long career that's stable."

Shah has also noticed increased interest in salaries and career opportunities, with more entry-level hires at Rehmann negotiating salary adjustments than in the past. It's a sign that this generation knows how to do the research about market rates and is not afraid to bring it up.

They are comfortable with the latest technology. This incoming group of workers has been exposed to technology their entire life and, by and large, are comfortable with trying out new types of programs and tools, said Ed Kless, the senior director of partner development and strategy for Sage, a cloud business management provider.

Employers should be ready for — and open to — suggestions of new tools from these younger workers. By exploring new tools, it could help the firm's bottom line and client relations.

"There may be new tools that some people either learn in college or pick up along the way that don't fit into the Microsoft Excel box," Kless said. "We need to be open to allowing them to explore some of these tools that aren't quite standardized."

They value inclusion. Building upon the desires of the Millennial generation, this group of workers is comfortable with and expects diverse workplaces where opportunities are available and workers are encouraged regardless of gender, race, sexual identity, and more, Shah said.

Firm leaders need to make sure they have visible and effective mentorship and recruitment programs. Making a commitment to diversity clear in branding efforts can help in recruiting this new generation of workers, Shah said. 

Firms should also take an opportunity to ensure they have diversity of thought and thinking styles, Kless said. One way is to ask prospective employees from this generation, and others, to explain how they think and what they value during the interview process. During interviews, he likes to ask about what books they've read for pleasure recently, as well as whom they view as heroes in their lives. The answers to those two questions give insight into how a person thinks and what drives them, he said.

They crave space. This group doesn't necessarily want the open-office, collaborative settings that Millennials appreciated, Good said. Instead, they have expressed a desire to be able to concentrate on their work in their own space.

"Half of them want more of a private setting or even a private office," Good said. He suggested firms look at office designs that incorporate areas in which people can work privately as well as larger areas to collaborate from time to time.

They want feedback. One observation Shah has had about incoming hires is that some are lacking what she terms "grit," the ability to deal with the unknown and find solutions. That translates into newer staff expressing frustration if they run into a roadblock in their work, and many will turn to their superiors or older colleagues hoping for a step-by-step guide to overcoming the hurdles.

Instead of doing that, Shah suggested counseling supervisors to give those associates an overview of how to find the information they need but leaving it to the associate to figure it out.

Employers will likely see that members of this young generation want and expect feedback, and will then dig in to meet, and even exceed, expectations. 

They tend to be enthusiastic. This incoming generation, like those ahead of them, tend to be idealistic, Kless said. Employers should look at that as a bonus — they bring energy and enthusiasm that could reinvigorate tired processes.  

He suggested approaching enthusiastic staff with the recommendation of: "Jump, but pack your parachute." In other words, offer ways to explore new ways of doing things — whether it's a different approach to handling customer interactions or proposals of new strategies for corporate clients. But make sure the person's core responsibilities are still being met and that the new direction is one that fits in with the firm's goals.

"We want to encourage that experience but at the same time we have to temper it with making sure we get the job done with customers' satisfaction," Kless said. "Ultimately, it is about that."

They are used to change. There have been massive changes in the world in the last five years, from major advances in technology and artificial intelligence that overhauled work and communication processes to rapidly evolving conversations about race, gender, and labor rights.

That means these newly minted workers are ready to adapt to the world around them, and they expect their work environment to do the same, Shah said.

"They won't tolerate archaic views or practices," she said. "They know what the world can be."

In that vein, Shah said there's a deeper desire for workplace transparency about pay structures and career ladders. Keeping that a mystery may turn new employees off, while making that information clear and accessible will lead to loyal employees eager to develop their skills.  

"This next generation is really going to appreciate it," Shah said.

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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