Gen Z in the Workplace

What Our Summer Intern Taught Me About Gen Z in the Workplace

 

A few months ago, a close friend from college asked if her 17-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, could intern with me for a week. She’s starting the application process for college and trying to decide which major she might be interested in. 

Kaitlyn is a phenomenal artist (she designed the shirts for BVOH’s 15th anniversary!) with a strong analytical mind, so there are a lot of directions she could go in her career. She wanted a true corporate experience—like working in downtown San Francisco—to help her figure out what her next steps might be.

I’ll be honest, I had no idea what to expect during her internship. When I was Kaitlyn’s age, work was far from my mind. The summer before my senior year in high school I was much more concerned with tennis and cheerleading than I was with my future career plans.

However, after a week with Kaitlyn, I was blown away with her work ethic, maturity, and problem solving, and I’m more excited than ever to have Gen Z join the workforce.

“I’ll Just Google It.”

For those five days, Kaitlyn worked the same schedule I did, and she did it all for no pay. We would head into the city early, jammed in with all of the other commuters on BART, work a full day, and stay until later in the evening.  

That week wasn’t a cakewalk. I felt like it was important to give her meaningful work—not just copying, filing and getting coffee. And you know what? She was incredibly capable. Not just for a 17-year-old, but for anyone in the workplace. 

“The most high-performing employees don’t have to be coached step by step; they will figure things out on their own, saving valuable time for their supervisors and peers.”

It was clear she was someone you could give a high level of direction to and feel confident that she would complete the task successfully.

At one point during the week, someone asked Kaitlyn to make an editable PDF. She readily agreed, “No problem.” When asked if she knew how to do this, she responded, “No – but I’ll just Google it.” 

I was struck by her combination of can-do attitude, fearlessness, and the fact that she didn’t need someone to sit down with her and walk her through it step-by-step.

It occurred to me that Generation Z is made up of great researchers; they know that they can learn how to do all sorts of things online, and they are very comfortable doing so. Older generations may not think in those terms quite as often, but Gen Z is very resourceful.

This resourcefulness is invaluable to an employer. The most high-performing employees don’t have to be coached step by step; they will figure things out on their own, saving valuable time for their supervisors and peers. 

At times, I have to remind myself (and other Gen X-ers and Millennials on our team) that almost any information we need can be found online. While the internet has been around for all or most of our adult lives, we forget that many of the simple questions that come up throughout the workday (definitions, processes, etc.) can be answered with a quick Google search.

Gen Z has grown up in a different world, where online resources have always been at their fingertips, and I believe their eagerness to use those resources will make them efficient and independent in the workplace.

 

Calm Under Pressure

Kaitlyn was also particularly good about expressing an interest in things in a very appropriate way, not at all sounding entitled. She had obviously given thought to things she thought would add value to the experience for her, and she communicated them in a clear, professional way. 

Early on, Kaitlyn had expressed an interest in attending a client meeting. When she first mentioned this (before she arrived) I was a little wary. However, when she showed up, and I saw how she handled herself in the office, we decided to give it a shot. 

Kaitlyn was the consummate professional. She looked and acted the part, just like any other member of our team. She was appropriate, took notes, and engaged in a very natural way. I was impressed with her poise and confidence. The client never questioned why there was a teenager there—most likely because they assumed she was at least in college!  

Taking Ownership

At the end of the week, Kaitlyn was working on a final project that had a deadline of 3pm that required her to leave the office to take care of some things. She was juggling the remainder of her responsibilities and rushing to complete everything. When Kaitlyn returned to the office, I asked her how things went, and she just told me everything was taken care of with a smile.

A less poised intern might have fallen apart, but I didn’t even know that things hadn’t gone according to plan until her mother told me about it later! This was yet another example of her resourcefulness, attitude, problem solving, and the ability to pivot when things go wrong and not be derailed by it.

Life (and work) is unpredictable and you will face hurdles and obstacles along the way. What will you do when something doesn’t turn out as planned or come easily? Will the first hurdle bring your progress to a screeching halt? 

“Pushing through to a solution (and with a good attitude) is a critical life skill — one that I see other professionals, much more experienced than Kaitlyn, struggle with.”

Pushing through to a solution (and with a good attitude) is a critical life skill — one that I see other professionals, much more experienced than Kaitlyn, struggle with. Kaitlyn’s problem solving ability was impressive in itself, but the fact that she didn’t disclose or discuss what happened to “get credit for it” showed incredible maturity and confidence. 

I’ve discovered that people of any generation will find a solution, but they’ll also let you know how difficult or challenging it was… which, let’s face it, doesn’t add value for anyone. This concept of taking “ownership” for a task or project can be hard for many to understand. 

Kaitlyn took complete ownership of every project and task she was given with only a high-level understanding of the objective and deliverable, which is yet another reason I have great confidence in this upcoming generation.

Getting Ready for Gen Z 

This experience with Kaitlyn was so inspiring for me! It made me much more interested in starting an internship program at BVOH, something that could be valuable to interested students and to our company, and hopefully help erase some age bias against younger workers. 

Kaitlyn’s a smart and talented young woman. I’m not exaggerating when I say she’s exceptional. I know all high school juniors aren’t just like her (I’m aware that many of her qualities are due to amazing parenting by my friend!) But this experience was such a big win, both for me and the company, and hopefully for her, too.  

Whatever path she chooses, Kaitlyn has a promising future ahead of her, and I am excited and hopeful about seeing more young people like her in the workforce.

 

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