How should leaders address the gen Z skills gap?
A bevy of recent research indicates that members of gen Z don’t feel prepared for the demands of their working lives, with a particular focus on digital literacy issues.
A 2022 report by Salesforce found that just 32% of gen Z adults feel very equipped with the resources to learn workplace digital skills. And when young employees do experience a digital issue, they’re likely to feel embarrassed. A study by HP found that 20% of gen Z feel ‘tech shame’ when experiencing a digital issue, compared to just 4% of workers over 40.
Misconceptions about the skills gap
“I think managers tend to assume young employees have better digital skills because they are digital natives,” says Severine Hierso, director for product marketing at RingCentral. However, growing up in the digital age does not necessarily equate to having the right tech skills for the workplace. According to research by the job board CWJobs, 72% of IT leaders think the next generation of workers will be the answer to the UK’s digital skills gap; however, only 24% of those aged 16 to 24 feel their age is an advantage in landing a tech role.
This preconceived idea of the digital literacy of younger workers may be the source of the ‘shame’ they feel. However, the lack of skills can be attributed to multiple generations, says Dave Prezzano, managing director of UK & Ireland at HP.
“The digital skills gap affects people of all ages, so it’s not something young people should feel uniquely responsible for,” he says. “Shame is the exact opposite of what I want our people to feel if they currently lack a given ability in any area.
“If these issues were allowed to fester, I would expect the ramifications to include an ongoing debilitation of staff confidence and willingness to experiment – which are two vitally important qualities that management has a responsibility to cultivate.”
This knock in confidence could compound gen Z’s perception of their soft skills. A study by The Workforce Institute found that young people in the US doubt their ability to negotiate, speak confidently in front of an audience and network effectively.
Understanding the unique challenges for gen Z
Prezzano stresses that managers must be empathetic towards their younger workers, who are missing out on valuable face-to-face interactions and casual learning due to the widespread adoption of hybrid working. Research by Gartner found that 46% of gen Z felt the Covid-19 pandemic made the pursuit of their educational and career goals more difficult.
“Imagine if you were new to the workforce when the pandemic hit, or have only ever worked in a hybrid environment”, he says. “There is a huge amount of workplace culture, in-person coaching and face-to-face time you will have missed out on.”
So, how can companies get their new recruits up to speed? Kimberly Maucher-Lynch, head of talent acquisition sales for EMEA at Workday, says aligning competencies with the business’s core vision is crucial to engaging gen Z.
“They want to tie what it is that they do for money and career to something which has a broader meaning for society,” says Maucher-Lynch. “This is a huge opportunity for companies to have that kind of dialogue with them. So it’s not just about the concrete skills and competencies, but how do these skills and competencies fit into the broader strategy of the company and how are they part of that?”
Providing suitable tools for the new workplace
Practically, businesses also have to engineer a method of replicating learning processes in a digital world. At RingCentral, a large portion of the workforce is working hybrid, so finding a digital substitute for in-person learning is of the utmost importance.
Using their own proprietary app, workers are able to message and video call each other, allowing for quick and informal communication should issues arise. Having one interface for both asynchronous and immediate feedback helps younger workers access their managers’ expertise and mimics apps they may use in their personal life.
“Simplicity is very important now in this complex work environment,” says Hierso. She explains that using one interface where everyone can communicate helps build culture, and says that younger employees find it particularly helpful as it’s the kind of technology they are already comfortable with.
A commitment to learning
Technology also has a role to play in the acquisition of technical skills. For example, Workday has a machine-learning platform which enables its clients to discover the most desirable skills for its open positions, and this is also used to help Workday’s own staff pinpoint the capabilities most applicable to their future. There is also a scheme to help employees pick up new experiences by joining short projects within Workday or its clients.
Maucher-Lynch says this underpins an organisation-wide commitment to learning that younger workers must adopt to thrive in the future of work. She cites a 2017 report by the Federation of Young Australians, that posits the theory young people entering the workplace are more likely to have 17 jobs in five different industries than to have a linear career trajectory.
“The skills are going to change. We’re going to continue to see a change in the kinds of skills which are needed for the future,” says Maucher-Lynch. “In my mind, the most important thing is to stay agile, to be open to the fact that what we do today is not what we’re going to be doing tomorrow.”
Finding an inclusive approach
A commitment to learning, and showcasing this in an accessible way, is important at HP. Again citing gen Z’s desire to work in more equitable workplaces, Prezzano says building an inclusive space where employees of all ages and backgrounds can upskill is vital to success.
“We have designed comprehensive training programmes and built learning platforms that are equally accessible for people at all levels,” he says. “Everyone is empowered to save and protect time for digital literacy and upskilling. This includes mentorship for new starters, graduates and interns.”
While the working world, and the processes of training, have changed in the past few years to suit the expectations of gen Z, they will still have to learn how to get along with certain rhythms of the workplace. Hierso notes that understanding etiquette and knowing how and when to use different methods of communication are eternal workplace skills that will be important in any working environment. “Workplaces have become way more flexible in the last few years,” she says. “But there are still some norms to adopt and understand.”
With the right delivery of training, a commitment to learning and support from their managers, there should be no barrier to the next generation of workers acquiring both the technical and soft skills they’ll need to thrive in their future careers.