About 50 representatives from more than 40 local businesses discussed the challenges of hiring young adults at the Missouri Job Center on Sept. 13. (Photo by Ryan Collins)

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Springfield businesses face problems trying to recruit and retain young adults who they say are entering the workforce unprepared and lacking basic skills to survive in a professional world.

Gen Zs are entering the workforce without knowing how to fill out a resume, conduct themselves during an interview or communicate with a potential employer, Springfield employers said at roundtable hosted by the Missouri Job Center. The employers said parents aren’t properly preparing young people to succeed in the workforce and schools aren’t giving them the skills needed to survive in the professional world.

About 50 representatives from more than 40 Springfield regional companies discussed the challenges of hiring and retaining 18- to 24-year-olds at a roundtable event, which was held at the Missouri Job Center on Sept. 13. The roundtable included representatives from business of all sizes, such as Cox Health, Mercy, O’Reilly Hospitality, Hy-Vee, Mediacom and many more.

“We can’t expect them to know what they haven’t been taught,” Jesse Lovelady, human resources manager at Mama Jean’s, said at the roundtable. “They’re not being taught at home, they’re not being taught at school and we’re expecting them to know what we know.”

More than half of young adults in the U.S. were employed as of July, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That level sits below employment rates of young adults in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic hit. A quarter of 16- to 24-year-olds work in leisure and hospitality, and the next biggest industry for young workers is retail trade.

Applications don’t dazzle

(Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

To grasp the extent of the issues some employers face, just look at the applications Mama Jean’s receives, Lovelady said.

“Honestly, we don’t even have legible applications,” Lovelady said. And those that can be read are often incomplete, she added. “I get a fraction of the information that I actually need to be able to call them back and bring them in for an interview.”

The majority of applications don’t include any experience history, John Edwards, business development and sales manager at Capital Paving and Construction, said. “There’s just no history there and they don’t put anything to gauge anything that they can do.”

Sometimes the applicant includes their high school grade point average, Edwards said, but that’s not enough to paint a full picture of the candidate.

If the applications are complete, many 18- to 24-year-olds lack basic communication skills to properly set up an interview and eventually get hired, Ciara Tennenbaum, recruiting specialist at Mediacom, said.

“When you call them back, the don’t answer,” Tennebaum said. “If you leave them a voicemail, they don’t call you back.”

Other employers have opted out of voicemails, instead trying to communicate with Gen Z in their preferred mode of communication: text messages and social media.

Failure to communicate

Dennis Bailey, recruiting manager at SGC Foodservice, said he goes straight to text messages when trying to reach out. Text messages are “the only way to pull them in consistently,” he said.

Bailey added it usually takes about six attempts, either through text or email, to set up an interview with the individual after an application is submitted.

Most of the communication issues stem from Gen Z’s obsession with social media and how it has changed how they speak with each other, Tracey Blaue, college and career advisor at Spokane High School, said.

Even when students are sitting next to each other, they will use their devices to talk through social media instead of talking in person, she said. This has led to a lack of interpersonal communication skills, and one reason why the Spokane School District has eliminated cell phones at schools, she said.

“They don’t know how to communicate because they’ve spent so much of their lives doing this,” Blaue said, lifting her phone up and to act like she was texting. “Until some of those earlier influences have changed, it’s going to be an uphill battle.”

Different values

(Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Gen Z workers expect a different life-work balance than previous generations. Some are demanding more time off, even if it translates to less take-home pay.

“Young people value their time more than they value their dollar,” Dian Rozier, director of human resources and safety at CNH Industrial Reman, said at the roundtable. “And they want more time off.”

Mama Jean’s started a couple new programs to appease younger workers, Lovelady said. The first is a shared-paid-time-off program, where “employees who have stacked sick days can donate sick time to people who are in a rough spot,” Lovelady said.

The second is a shared emergency fund, where each employee donates a small amount of each paycheck to the fund and in turn, when times are tough, can then apply for some help from the fund, Lovelady said.

Interviews don’t impress much

Most of the Gen Z applicants Hiland Dairy receives don’t know how to behave during an interview, Cloe Richards said at the roundtable. Richards is the recruitment and hiring coordinator at Hiland, which has 77 locations in 10 states and about 4,000 employees.

“There’s a lack of training on how to do interviews,” Richards said. She has had applicants show up in sweatpants and even answer a phone during an interview. It’s gotten so bad, that Richards now prescreens every applicant on the phone before an interview is set up, she said.

Other employers offer a crash course on professional behavior prior to even starting interviews. Megan Herzog, Executive Director at the Springfield Contractors Association, said she walks new applicants through everything from what to wear to an interview to how to make eye contact and shake hands.

“Even just going through and forcing them to practice leaving voicemails with each other” has helped the hiring efforts, Herzog said.

A lot of these communication skills should be taught in schools and the fact that it is difficult to get the schools to engage in these conversations is concerning, said Rozier of CNH Industrial Reman.

“It will take all of us to impact change for the next generation and I really question where is” Springfield Public Schools in the roundtable? Rozier said, adding “you can’t get them to the table.”

“We’re willing to do the work. We’re willing to go to the school and engage, we just need to know how,” Rozier said.

No representative from Springfield Public Schools (SPS) was at the roundtable.

“We were not aware of an opportunity for SPS to engage during today’s event,” Stephen Hall, chief communications officer, said in an email Sept. 13. “We would have been happy to do so and would welcome the next opportunity,” he said.

SPS has multiple programs that show their commitment to helping 18- to 24-year-olds, such as Launch Missouri’s Workforce and its Future Educators Program, a partnership with Missouri State University, Hall said.

Back to basics with hiring

Some employers have created a whole new hiring process for 18- to 24-year olds. Capital Paving now offers a paid, six-week training program that allows applicants to be embedded in the company’s culture, Edwards said. The program has been successful, with more than 90 percent of last year’s trainees still employed at the company, he said.

Even when applications are complete, young people aren’t making the appointment for an interview, Eric Johnson, Adult Protective Services Regional Manager at the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services, said at the roundtable.

“We have more no-shows than we actually have people showing up,” Johnson said.

It goes beyond just professional skills that young people don’t possess; it comes down to basic life skills, Lovelady of Mama Jean’s said.

“I’ve started asking if they know how to do regular chores. Do they know how to take out the trash? Do they know how to sweep a floor?” she said. “I’m not exaggerating, it’s basic, basic skills of existing that are lacking.”

Kim Paige, workforce development specialist at the Missouri Job Center, shares remarks at the roundtable on Sept. 13. (Photo by Ryan Collins)

To be sure, once Gen Zs are hired, they can have a positive effect on other workers, Steve Anderson, Human Resources Specialist at the City of Springfield, said.

“Bringing in people with less experience — I’ve seen that is has reignited excitement in our more tenured employees,” he said.

Some employers who are struggling with hiring young people need to re-evaluate how they are engaging with Gen Z, Edwards of Capital Paving said.

“We’re expecting them to come to us in the same manner you and I did 20 years ago,” he said. “Yet, we’re all sitting around the room complaining that they’re not doing it the way we did.”

“Maybe the solution is to change” how employers are thinking about hiring. “We’re having to be aggressive and meet the students where they are.”

Ryan Collins

Ryan Collins is the business and economic development reporter for the Springfield Daily Citizen. Collins graduated from Glendale High School in 2011 before studying journalism and economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He previously worked for Bloomberg News. Contact him at (417) 849-2570 or rcollins@sgfcitizen.org. More by Ryan Collins