Top Ten Tips for Working with Youth

Gen Z

By Tanya Kett.

Part of me is hesitant to generalize about the student population I work with at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, but, through my experience as a Career Development Advisor, I’d like to share the insights and tips I’ve gathered about building successful working relationships with young adults.

Generation Z is the generation that is currently in university, born from about 1995-2010, and the primary focus of the work I do. As the generation shifted from Millennials to Gen Z, I noticed a trend in students having a more realistic approach to career development. For example, the current cohort are more willing to look for entry-level jobs, or jobs unrelated to their areas of study. They seek out fields of work or companies that interest them. This is a dramatic difference to the entitlement mentality of years prior. Gen Z also demonstrates a stronger awareness of the importance of values in the workplace.

Gen Z is interested in company culture. They want to feel good about the work they do and the company they work for. They are adaptable to the changing nature of work and willing to take on risks to improve chances for success. They’re eager to invest in their futures through pursuing additional training and certifications, job shadowing opportunities, and seeking out mentors. Many plan on furthering their education by pursuing postgraduate studies or professional qualifications.

Despite being digital natives, many Gen Z’ers seek out in-person conversations with someone experienced and knowledgeable in career development. These young people can easily find the information they are looking for but may need assistance in understanding it and how it applies to them. Examples of the type of help they may require includes how to read a job posting and assessing how their skills align or reviewing the qualifications for advanced education and understanding if they meet the eligibility requirements.

Here are some tips, based on my experience, for successfully working with this demographic.

1. Build a rapport

Treat each question as though it’s the first time you’ve heard it. Doing so makes the young person feel like an important and valued individual. In addition to being career practitioners, we are also customer service professionals. Young adults know how to look up credentials and social media profiles to evaluate whether or not they want to proceed with your services, and they can also use those channels to provide online reviews, both positive and negative.

2. Understand their values

This generation is inclusive and they embrace diversity. They’re community-minded and engaged in social justice initiatives. These qualities translate into their career goals in terms of the types of employers they are interested in working for. They’re keen to align their career with their values, rather than being focused solely on financial gain. You might encourage them to look at companies with initiatives in the local community or those focused on sustainability. I encourage them to ask employers questions they can’t typically Google, such as what the company culture is like, and what that person likes about working there.

3. Find out what impact they want to make

Instead of asking “What do you want to do?” or “What are your career goals?”, you could ask about the impact they want to make on society or the community. What legacy do they want to leave?  This often drives a dialogue that is more genuine and passionate than the typical career-related conversation they may have with their parents or peers.

4. Help them understand their strengths

Asking about goals and aspirations is part of our job, but I believe that the way we ask it could use some updating. As mentioned previously, we can ask about impact, but we can also ask about perceived strengths. Having this discussion helps our young-adult clients appreciate that they have a lot to offer and, as a result, their confidence gets a boost. By listening carefully, the career development professional can key in on the type of work environment that might appeal to the client. It may seem like a lofty goal for someone to state that they want to be an astronaut, but finding out that the person thrives in an ever-changing scenario that requires collaborative problem-solving, mental and physical resiliency, creativity, and resourcefulness opens up the conversation to explore other ideas that align with his or her strengths. The discussion also serves as a good exercise for résumé development, interview preparation, networking spiels, and self-reflection.

5. Talk about the importance of communication skills

With the dominance of social media, texting, and emails vs. face-to-face communications, some individuals shy away from the in-person conversations that are so beneficial at career fairs, networking events, or mentorship opportunities. Verbal communication is a skill that employers value and one they’ve identified as lacking as society relies more and more on “conversations” using technology. Although Gen Z were brought up with technology, the good news is that they enjoy face-to-face communications. However, some may require extra coaching to be able to ask good questions in interviews and articulate their value in professional settings.

6. Let them teach you something

Technology is dominant in most workplaces, and it can seem overwhelming to keep up-to-date with all of the devices, websites, apps, and online tools that assist us with our work in career development. Make a point of learning things from your younger clients. Ask about a social media platform that you’d like to know about or seek their advice on how to reach more people in their age group. They have great ideas, are eager to contribute, and asking for their help makes them feel good.

7. Be structured, yet flexible

My experience has shown me that young professionals are flexible and adaptable to new situations and many even thrive on the unknown. However, creating a plan of action or documenting SMART goals is a wise step in order to keep both yourself and your client on track. Setting clear goals and expectations of one another is part of any career development agreement and creates an accountability partnership. Keeping focused on each task and adhering to timelines is what will help move this population forward.

8. Think globally

Young professionals today are often more open to travelling from their home base for work or other skill-building opportunities. I like to ask, “Have you thought about opportunities in other areas of Canada, or in other countries?”  You might be surprised at how many would consider such a move. Work on building up your own knowledge about global opportunities and equip yourself with some resources to pass along. GoinGlobal and MyWorldAbroad are my favourites.

9. Build their confidence

Tips 1 through 7 help to build confidence in young job-seekers, but if you find they’re struggling to fully embrace their worth in the marketplace, talk to them about the value of their experiences. Many of my clients tell me that they’ve been told that their volunteering or extra-curricular activities don’t count, and that any work they do should be related to their career aspirations. However, employers (at least those I’ve worked with) value the sections on a résumé titled “Volunteer Work”, Extra-Curricular Activities”, or “Leadership Experience.” These activities demonstrate time-management, organizational, leadership, and team-building skills, to name just a few. They show that the young person is eager to learn and contribute to his or her community. I like to encourage my clients to tap into young professional networks so they can meet like-minded individuals. These networks exist in most cities and for many different professions.

10. Reap the rewards

One of the best parts of my job? Gen Z’ers are exceptionally grateful for assistance and express their thanks with genuine warmth. They tend to refer friends (and they have many connections!) to our career development services and we all know that word of mouth is the cheapest way to advertise. I am often in awe of the maturity and emotional intelligence these young people possess. For me, seeing their smiles and watching their confidence emerge is one of the main reasons I love what I do!

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Thanks for the great post! I also work with youth in post-secondary and I find what you’ve said above to be absolutely spot-on. I often run into #9 as well where students discount the values and lessons they’ve learned through unpaid activities. We often talk about the importance of PULL – paid, unpaid, learning, and leisure – when looking at holistic career growth.
You’ve brought up such a relevant topic – thank you!
Michael C.R.

Thank you for replying, I’m glad you enjoyed the topic. Love the PULL concept, that is a great framework, thank you for sharing!

Great article, Tanya! I am sure it’s easy to default to “I’m the grown-up and I know everything” mode if you’re not used to working with young Millenials and Gen Zers. It will be very interesting to see how the authenticity and diversity of this up-and-coming generation changes the workplace, and hiring practices along with it.


Thanks for the comment Devon, I suspect they will shake up the current workplace norms, as they are connected 24/7. Remote work and round the clock access, making them pioneers in work life blend, which most of us know as work life balance.