The Bottom Line on Next Gen Workers

Universum Communications' CEO talks about the sexiness of accounting, the popularity of tech, and the misunderstood millennial generation

As chief executive officer of Universum Communications, the Philadelphia-based research firm that provides BusinessWeek with student feedback for our Best Places to Launch a Career ranking, Claudia Tattanelli knows what undergraduates are looking for in an entry-level employer. She should. This year her firm surveyed over 44,000 students across the country, asking them to identify their five most desirable employers. To check out the complete findings, including the top picks by college major, click on BusinessWeek's interactive table of the 2007 Ideal Undergraduate Employers ranking.

Tattanelli spoke with staff editor Lindsey Gerdes about the surprising sexiness of accounting, the popularity of tech, and the workplace stereotypes attached to a misunderstood millennial generation.

Why did accounting firms do so well in the rankings (they're the top three)?

Accounting firms really started being on the radar after the scandals…that actually helped their image. [Students started thinking] it's not true you'd be a bean counter in accounting. You can actually make some big decisions.

I don't know of an industry that has been on campus as consistently as accounting. They need to recruit the most students of any industry. They not only need to recruit thousands, but also they need people to study certain disciplines. They started going and branding themselves at the high school-level many years ago. Their brand image, considering they don't have product like Disney or Google, is impressive. They've always had buy-in from the top. It [recruitment] is obviously a priority internally.

Another big surprise is the ranking of IBM (IBM) (No. 4) and Microsoft (MSFT) (No. 6), bracketing Google (GOOG) (No.5). How did they move so high on the list?

Microsoft came 15 years ago and really hurt IBM. Now Google's doing it to them. What Google's doing is forcing both of them to completely change. They realized they were losing [talent]. IBM has worked so much on diversity. They also provide flexible work hours. Many people [at IBM] don't even have an office. Microsoft is creating more of a campus effect.

Is the tech industry hot or just these three employers? Aren't these employers only looking for engineering and computer science majors? What about us English grads?

This is a group that is all about the Web. It's a medium that they love so much. They're drawn to work in it. Of course if they have IT skills they can work in tech. However, tech needs business, marketing, IT backgrounds, everything. It's hiring like it's never hired before. Also, there are so many California-based tech firms and that locale is very appealing. It's also pretty much a clean industry. It's not really polluting the environment. It's also a lot more casual than the pharmaceutical industry.

Teach for America must get the award for most improved, jumping to No. 10 from No. 43 last year. The Peace Corps also made an impressive gain from No. 38 to No. 23. What do you attribute that to?

Students aren't just choosing any nonprofit. They're making it clear they are investing in themselves. These are nonprofits that have a reputation and will look good on their résumés. These millennials aren't dreamers. These are individuals who know their power and are very bright and determined. They're there [nonprofits/government] to do all that they can, and they're not going to settle on just any choice.

They've been brought up by Gen Xers. These students are very savvy. Even just two years ago the [Ideal Undergraduate Employer] rankings would go up and down depending on a product, or this or that, but not anymore.

Do you think Gen Y—a group that has sometimes been labeled as entitled, needy, and lazy—may be getting a bad rap?

I hear a lot of people saying there's no "having to get to the moon" level of ambition for this generation. They want to improve everyday life. They want to make this a clean, better place. I'm sorry, how is that not a goal? Why do you need to do something that affects the moon? They're constructive and that's not inferior just because it's not as grand.

These people are very, very active. They're volunteering and giving back. I can't stand when people criticize their ambition. They're already making changes because their goals are not grand and crazy.

It sounds as if they're making changes through volunteering and serving the community. How about to the corporate world? How are they viewed there and what, if any, effect are they having?

They've made more changes [to the workforce] than I've seen any other generation make in their first few years, and that's not by crying. They're making changes because they're very constructive with what they're demanding. They say: Don't make me sacrifice everything. They want work-life balance because they know they'll be working more hours and they're just being realistic. They don't want to do it stupidly. They just want a better life and their better life is going to contribute to the bottom line in the end. Maybe if they're screaming, they're screaming for good reason.

A lot of the literature that has been written on their lack of resilience is wrong. Maybe they need a little more mentoring, but they have an incredible will to make changes. I feel there are still lots of managers saying they're whiners. If they [managers] can stop complaining and give a small amount of mentoring, it's going to help them later. It's going to [make this group] so much more productive.

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