Gen Z Feels Less Ready for the Workforce Than Other Generations

Younger Americans seem less bullish on further education and credentials
A group of Gen Z student hang out in a common area

Ideally, a college education opens up professional doors of opportunity. But a new study suggests that many students—especially those from Generation Z—are feeling unprepared for the workforce.

To look at perceptions about the value of degrees and advanced credentials in the labor market, education technology company Ellucian hired Wakefield Research to survey 500 U.S. students between the ages of 18 and 45 who are currently enrolled in a degree or credential program, as well as 500 recruiters and hiring managers.

The study broke the students down into generations, categorizing those between 18 and 21 as Generation Z, those between 22 and 37 as millennials, and respondents between 38 and 53 as Generation X.

Most students surveyed (62%) said they were pursuing higher education in order to improve their career prospects—not too surprisingly, the most popular response. Other reasons students said they were attending college included:

  • Wanting to explore a specific field of study (57%)
  • Working to complete requirements for a future educational program or profession (51%)
  • Wanting to expand their social or professional network (33%)
  • Family members or friends advising or expecting them to do so (25%)
  • Hoping to get a promotion or salary increase (11%)

Despite the fact that most students were hoping their education would pay off professionally, only 39% thought that their program was, in fact, leaving them especially prepared for their profession. Younger students were more likely to feel this way: Only 36% of Generation Z respondents said their education was making them “feel very prepared for the workforce,” compared to 49% of millennials and 68% of Gen Xers.

Recruiters questioned in the survey, however, were more optimistic. In all, 62% said they were “very confident” that job candidates they’d hired were prepared with the necessary skills.

The survey also looked at the likelihood of students planning to obtain another degree or credential after finishing their current program. Here, responses showed Generation Z students slightly less likely to continue their education.

  • Among both Gen Xers and millennials, 91% of respondents said they intended to pursue another degree or educational credential after their current one, while 85% of members of Generation Z had plans to do so.
  • More than half of Gen Xers (55%) and millennials (56%) believed “further education is needed more than once a year to stay relevant in the workforce,” while only 35% of Generation Z said they felt that way.
  • More than half of Gen Xers (57%) and millennials (55%) said they thought credentials were “essential to meeting their future career goals,” compared to 43% of Generation Z.

While younger workers seem to be placing less importance on furthering their education through credentials, recruiters see the future differently. In fact, when asked for their views about hiring trends over the next five years, 97% of recruiters said credentials will be a factor in selecting candidates, and 85% of employers said an increasing number of applicants would have credentials along with a college degree.

With the high cost of education, it’s not surprising that some students are looking for alternative ways to meet their career goals without pursuing another degree or credential. However, it’s important to do your research to determine which degrees and certifications are expected in your field.

If the majority of candidates have a particular credential, it may be more difficult for you to get the promotion or salary increase you want without it. If you’re considering furthering your education, see if your employer will pay for it, since some companies offer tuition reimbursement as a benefit. That would save you money while also potentially increasing your earning potential.

Likewise, look out for free or low-cost courses that could help your professional life without burdening your finances.

Tamara E. Holmes

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, DC-based writer who covers personal finance, entrepreneurship and careers.

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