Forget About Gen Y—Why Every University Recruiter Should Focus on Gen Z

gen z

Do you have clear memories of life before and after you got your first smartphone? What about life before cell phones and the internet? If you answered yes to these questions, congratulations, you are clearly not a member of Generation Z.

You might feel like you’re still just trying to wrap your head around the mystery of Gen Y—or maybe you’re even a millennial yourself. But if you’re attempting to catch the attention of college students and recent graduates, you’ll definitely want to learn about Gen Z. They’re today’s high school students who will soon be tomorrow’s college freshmen, and not too long after that they’ll be the juniors and seniors you’d like to recruit and hire for your organization.

We caught up with Sheetal Patel, Director of Branding and Digital Communities at the Career Development Center at Stanford University to learn more about Gen Z’s defining features and how university recruiters can prepare to recruit—and work with—this emerging group of college graduates.


Can you tell us a little bit about your role as Director of Branding and Digital Communities at Stanford’s Career Development Center? What are some of your responsibilities?

A brand is an experience someone has with a product or service. Great brands work hard to shape a positive and fulfilling experience. As the Director of Branding, my primary role is to ensure all of our stakeholders, including students, alumni, employers, parents, faculty, and the rest of the Stanford Community have a great experience in any of the interactions they have with us, whether it is in-person or online. Providing a great experience online, at events, and in providing connections to people and resources is at the core of helping students transition from the university to life after Stanford.

For employers specifically, this means making sure they are connected to the opportunities on campus that help our students find the career opportunities they are looking for. The Stanford Career Development Center is currently in the midst of change moving toward Vision 2020 or a Career Connections Model, as the career services field is changing dramatically. My role also entails changing our branding and marketing strategy accordingly.

Why is it important for a career services department to have a director of branding?

It is important for career services to have someone dedicated to branding or marketing in order to provide a clear and consistent experience for the many stakeholders a career center has. The career landscape is changing rapidly, and in order to help students obtain the career opportunities they want, we have to do our best to communicate with them and all the populations that can help them achieve their career aspirations. That means carefully crafting messages that benefit not only students, but provide fulfilling experiences for alumni and providing mutually beneficial experiences for employers.

Where do we draw the line between Gen Y and Gen Z? What are some of the defining characteristics of Gen Z?

The answer to the first part of this question usually varies. Some research studies look at dates, and others look at when certain characteristic trends change. Gen Y is typically defined as born between 1980–1995 and Gen Z from 1995–2009. Those dates can vary depending on which lens you are looking at generational shifts from, such as social media trends versus developmental trends.

In terms of the most popular question of social media, the main defining characteristic of Gen Z is that social media are fads themselves. In other words, everyone in a particular peer group might be on one social media channel one week and another new up and coming one the next. Many studies have already shown that this generation is much more visual in their social media usage, with popular social media channels like Snapchat and Instagram attracting more users in this generation than Facebook or Twitter.

When it comes to employment, Gen Z has been predicted to want more face-to-face contact and collaborative and team-oriented experiences. They are predicted to be more competitive as well. Instant gratification is one characteristic that has been attributed to Gen Y, but is predicted to be even more exacerbated in Gen Z, which can be a challenge in the workplace. Some Gen Zers are already coming to college with internship experience, but we will have to wait and see which employment characteristics ultimately define them.

How might the differences between Gen Y and Gen Z affect an organization’s ability to reach these specific audiences?

I think one of the biggest misunderstandings is how we define a “digital native.” For example, Gen Yers and Gen Zers are sometimes called “digital natives,” yet, if you think about their childhoods, they are “digitally different.” Gen Yers growing up in the 80s and early 90s did not have the internet and smartphones. In fact, the first iPhone was introduced in 2007. On the other hand, Gen Zers may have received their first smartphones as teenagers or just a little earlier. That means the way they consume their digital media is different than Gen Y.

For instance, I hear higher ed professionals and employers alike say, “Let’s just get an app to get their attention.” The communication issue is not in getting an app, but persuading Gen Z to download it and use it. This generation has been bombarded with app downloads, may have more than 50 apps on their phone, and not use half of them.

In order to adapt strategy to Gen Z, an organization needs to focus on what channel really is best for the goal they are trying to accomplish, and many times, social media is not the answer, though we associate Gen Z with digital. Anecdotally, in my own conversations with Gen Zers, they value face-to-face contact for important opportunities, such as speaking with employers. Employers will need to reevaluate which channel is best at getting the attention of Gen Zers as they come of age for employment opportunities.

In your presentation at MPACE14, you mentioned the growing importance of brand ambassadors for both employers and career services—can you elaborate on this point?

The idea of brand ambassadors is not a new one. As a general rule, we tend to listen to and value our peers’ opinions. This is especially important in an age where finding peer reviews of products and services is as easy as clicking a button. Therefore, employers and career services professionals need to find authentic advocates in each of their stakeholder groups to help communicate messages and gain attention. I do want to emphasize authentic advocates. Find the people that have had positive experiences and have real stories to share, and ask them to actively share.

You also mentioned that brand messaging will need to be increasingly tailored (and big data and machine learning have a part to play in this). What might this look like in a university recruiting context?

Gen Z has been able to experience customized messages more than any other generation before them, for example getting recommendations based on past shopping habits when shopping online. There is an expectation of receiving customized experiences that is supported because of technologies like machine learning.

For university recruiting, this means if you are trying to capture the attention of a particular type of student, you don’t give them a generic message that is broadcasted, but instead, a message that shows you have paid attention to what they are interested in.

If a student provides their résumé online, it means replying with a non-generic message that connects your company or brand to some piece of information they have given you.

This, of course, is much easier said than done. Industry and higher ed are still trying to figure out how to do this well and in an ethical manner.

You mentioned earlier that despite the increasingly cluttered digital landscape, personal interactions continue to matter to students. How can employers take advantage of this and ensure their face-to-face interactions are making the right impression?

I think career centers at the forefront of the changing landscape are looking for ways to help employers with this. For example, some centers are changing the way career fairs are conducted by including informal receptions before or after, or moving away from the traditional booth model. They are providing spaces for more in-depth interactions.

Employers can also ensure they are making the right impressions by providing mutually beneficial experiences outside of interviews or on-campus information sessions, but instead interacting with students in ways that might help them, such as mentoring, or sharing career stories.

Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you’d like to add with regards to branding to a Gen Z audience?

The most important piece to branding is making sure you speak to your audience beforehand and have members be a part of the conversation and development of your messages.

The next step: Sheetal mentions the importance of speaking with your audience and encouraging them to be a part of the conversation. Look for opportunities to meet with college underclassmen or high school students. This is great conversation fodder for career fairs—ask students about trends they observe among their younger siblings or classmates. You can also look into arranging a short talk next time you’re on a college campus or enlisting help from one of your current interns. Take the time to learn about Gen Z’s interests, concerns, and preferred communication style.


3 Responses to “Forget About Gen Y—Why Every University Recruiter Should Focus on Gen Z”

  1. Your 5-Minute Guide to Employer Branding - AfterCollege Employer Blog

    […] What this means for recruiters is that you don’t want to neglect passive candidates. Many job-seekers may be currently employed, but they’d be happy to jump on the right opportunity if it presented itself. You can make sure that you’re ready to attract passive candidates by building a cohesive brand strategy, a fully functional mobile experience, and personalized job-seeker engagement. (For more on this topic, check out our interview with Sheetal Patel, Director of Branding and Digital Engagement at Stanford University….) […]


Leave a Reply