Get Ready For A Pickier Workforce

Today's teens say employers without a social conscience need not apply

Ten years ago, a decent salary offer and the prospect of advancement were all an employer needed to entice new college grads. Today it helps to be in a sexy industry like media or technology and be open to flextime and job-sharing. But when the next wave of job seekers starts looking for work in 2010, watch out. New research suggests that these savvy young people will look deep inside companies to see what makes them tick -- and find many sorely wanting.

That could make recruiting the workforce of tomorrow a challenge. Now 14 to 18 years old, these teens say they are committed to equality, prefer companies that act responsibly, and care deeply about a clean environment. For some, civic-minded activities may be resumé-padding, and for others, youthful idealism may fade. But if these values largely survive this cohort's adolescence, experts say, the decisions they make, from the sneakers they buy to the companies they'll work for, will likely be guided by such views. One study by Energy BBDO, a Chicago ad agency affiliated with BBDO Worldwide, concluded that to succeed with this group, brands can't just strive to stand out, they "must strive to stand for something."

Many of the differences between these kids and college grads now entering the workforce can be traced to September 11. Many twentysomething job seekers, coming of age during the late 1990s dot-com boom, grew up feeling entitled and came to expect gravity-defying pay and promotions. Those who are following them are living in an era of orange alerts, terror plots, and war.

With such turmoil, experts say, comes a search for meaning in work. "I think the 9/11 experience changed a lot of things," says Stan Moor, who teaches philanthropy to teens at the Westminster Schools, a private institution in Atlanta. "Students seem to have a 'fighting for a cause' type of attitude." Young people say life's too short to waste on a job that only pays the bills. "If I find my passion for something, I'll go for it," says Jordan Pearson, a 15-year-old in Seymour, Ind.


The goal for companies will be to convince this younger generation that they're one of the good guys. In the Energy BBDO study, which surveyed 3,332 teens worldwide, 78% said money was less important to them than personal fulfillment. Some are already acting on their convictions. James Sebel, 17, a budding environmentalist who took Moor's class, says he's drawn to companies like outdoor apparel maker Patagonia, which contributes 1% of sales to environmental causes. Says Sebel: "I like to shop at places where they have a similar opinion about things that I do."

Where will Sebel and his generation find satisfying work? Experts say these teens, who are highly attuned to phoniness, will seek employers they perceive as being part of a larger social purpose. A good bet, they say, would be companies like Whole Foods Market Inc. (WFMI ), the Austin (Tex.)-based natural foods chain with an egalitarian pay structure that caps CEO pay at 14 times that of the typical worker.

While today's teens are years away from the job market, companies are already testing ways to attract and retain their older siblings. Some, such as consultant Accenture (ACN ), pay employees to work with nonprofits. Others take a personal approach. When Laura Bradner, 23, joined Abbott Laboratories (ABT ) last year, two relatives had diabetes, and she leaped at the chance Abbott gave her to work on diabetes research. "I'm involved first-hand in launching these projects," she says. "It's really interesting."

Such strategies, while promising, may be strained to the breaking point when companies are scrambling to recruit replacements for millions of retiring boomers. After all, few companies are in the business of saving the world, and there are only so many openings for heroes.

By Lindsey Gerdes

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.