How grad programs have changed (and what Gen Z wants)

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When you spend more than 25 years in the early career space, you learn a lot about grad recruitment, training and development programs. A grad guru, some would say (we do. We say it).

That’s exactly why we teed up a chat with Suncorp’s Kelly Pfeffer for our latest podcast series, Emerging Trends in the World of Emerging Talent.

Kelly is currently doing her second stint at Suncorp (she previously spent 6 years looking after the organisation’s grad program), in an Early Careers Specialist role. Before that, Kelly spent 20 years working in HR generalist and grad management positions in various Queensland government departments, as well as in the IT/engineering industry. 

Oh, and along the way she created Grad Hero Hub – an online community for graduate recruitment and development professionals

Thankfully, Kelly still found time to sit down with us! 

We loved picking her brain about managing this generation of grads, how Covid has changed the landscape and why it’s up to every organisation to do their bit for upskilling up the workforce

How is this generation of grads doing things differently?

We’re going to sound 150 years old when we say this. But…today’s grads don’t stick around if they’re not happy. 

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‘The big thing I’ve noticed in recent years is if things don’t go well, or…they’re not enjoying it as much as they thought they would, they’re quite willing to just change and move on,’ Kelly says. ‘In the past, we would just say ‘here’s your program, this is where you’re going’ and they used to accept it. Now, they really question and challenge it.’

Of course, walking away from something that doesn’t feel right isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And everyone deserves job satisfaction.

That’s why Kelly believes flexibility and communication are key (and about 900 times more productive than pining for the ‘good old days’).

‘From a career development perspective, we need to coach them through some of these decisions,’ she says firmly. ‘Why they’re making these decisions and – where it makes sense – encourage them to actually feel uncomfortable for a little while as well.’

The result? More of a hybrid graduate recruitment program where the structure still stands – but new employees know they can voice their concerns, too. 

The graduate recruitment landscape since Covid

On one hand, recruiting, onboarding and getting to know grads in a virtual setting is…unideal. Yet, this new way of remote working has actually broadened the talent pool for organisations like Suncorp.

‘We’ve probably lost a lot of the relationship building we could do prior to the pandemic,’ Kelly explains ‘and it’s probably made it a lot harder for us to be proactive in understanding what’s happening for the grads and where they’re at etc.

‘But, by moving to virtual, we’ve been able to basically hire from anywhere – and that’s opened up opportunities for people to work from different locations we may not have considered in the past,’ she says. ‘Now, we can go where the talent is, as opposed to expecting the talent to come to us.’

Wins and losses. Ups and downs. Swings and roundabouts (you get the picture).

The (often tricky) shift from university to working life

Adjusting to working full-time has never been a walk in the park. But in today’s hyper connected world, grads face even greater challenges. More like a run in a desert, perhaps. With no sun protection, water or food 🥴

Shifting from student to structured life

When face-to-face uni lectures and tutorials are optional, students tend to fall into their own (often 24 x7)  routine. Of course, running your own show is great for organisational, time management and self-motivational skills

But, says Kelly, it can be a struggle to relinquish that flexibility once you’re in the 9 to 5 workforce.

‘The expectation of having to be available is a big shift for them…[they] may have to come into the office on certain days or only be allowed to work from home certain days or attend certain meetings,’ Kelly explains. ‘That’s a big change from university life to work life.’

 

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Staying focused

‘The other thing is the ability to focus – for example, if we have an hour-long meeting, they have to be able to focus for the full hour,’ she continues. ‘[And] they really struggle with that sometimes. They’re so used to doing 5 different things at once.’

Us too, Kelly. Us too.

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Different measurables

Leaving university also means getting less structured feedback – and an easy way to compare themselves to their peers

‘It’s more vague in the workplace,’ Kelly reminds us. ‘We have performance reviews, but our categories are quite broad as far as how you’re performing. [But] they’re not always going to get handed [clear feedback] every single time. Sometimes, they need to be able to interpret that themselves and know what they need to do differently.’

Adulting: we all get over it sometimes.

When the offers keep coming

With recruiting drives now happening all year round, many university-leavers are receiving multiple job offers. And while there’s nothing wrong with having a few options on the table, Kelly says today’s emerging talent should be encouraged to be upfront about their situation.

‘What’s interesting to me is that they’re putting themselves first – which is fine – but there doesn’t seem to be any worry about implications or consequences,’ Kelly ponders. ‘It’s one thing to have options and another not to worry how it impacts anyone else.

‘There’s definitely a shift to ‘I’m going to try and collect as many offers as I can and then decide which one I want.’

It’s easy to put the blame solely on a ‘chop and change’ generation who do whatever suits them. But, Kelly says it also comes down to educating leaders on building those relationships with new grads.

How can leaders look after grads better?

Kelly’s come to realise a grad’s experience doesn’t just rest with a well-rounded program. According to her, managers have a big role to play, too.

‘[We tend to] forget about the person who actually looks after them day-to-day, who provides that experience,’ she admits. ‘I think leaders are a huge part of the puzzle that perhaps we’ve forgotten about recently. But, if the leader is who the grad is spending most of the time with, then it’s the leader we need to support.’

Embracing proactive feedback (even when it’s negative)

Kelly praises new grads who tell it how it is, get involved and breathe fresh air into organisations. 

 

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‘These days, what I love is they’re not afraid to tell you when something isn’t going great,’ she smiles. ‘But they’ll also tell you when things are great, too. So I really do appreciate that proactive feedback we get in return from them – and I really enjoy talking to them about all sorts of opportunities.’

Grads are far more likely to put their hand up for tasks outside the scope of their jobs – such as recruiting the next round of job hunters. Kelly says this enthusiasm is something organisations should embrace. 

‘It’s really good from an organisational perspective to have a program where everyone understands what the purpose is…the role they play in supporting [others] and where [employees] have an opportunity to get involved if they want to.’

And, says Kelly, the benefits extend beyond an individual organisation and actually contribute to the entire ecosystem of early careers

‘If we give opportunities to people who are just starting out in their career, then effectively, we all benefit,’ Kelly explains. ‘Because some of my grads will go to other organisations, but vice versa: grads from other organisations will end up coming to us.

‘Ultimately, we want a skilled workforce…and for me, that’s the underlying purpose of what we do.

We’re all in it together

As ever, the graduate recruitment landscape continues to evolve. Some days, it’s no easy gig (!) – but there are many positives to a generation who know what they want, why their contribution matters and where their early career path is headed. 

And it’s up to every HR professional to stay connected, current and open to change

For more insights into managing today’s grad recruitment, training and development programs, check out our Emerging Trends in the World of Emerging Talent podcast series here!

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