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Creative solutions to attract top tech talent: Why we need Gen Z

Tim Johnson, Chief Human Resources Officer, Pinnacol Assurance

Tim Johnson, Chief Human Resources Officer, Pinnacol Assurance

I am far from a Gen Z’er. I am not on TikTok; I do not know what “cottagecore” is, and I’ve only “spilled the tea” in a literal sense. But increasingly, learning about what makes Gen Z tick has been on my mind, and it should be on yours, too.

Everyone knows the labor market is incredibly tight these days, especially for valuable IT roles. Also, the insurance workforce is aging and on the verge of retirement. To survive, our industry must focus on self-disruption and challenging the status quo while existing in a competitive market that needs to leverage technology. As insurance executives, we know we must ensure our organizations have the talent that can reenergize our performance and innovate new services. What is less clear is how to set our companies apart to get—and keep—the employees we want. We need a creative solution to build top tech talent. Let me explain.

As the insurance industry grapples with the idea that its future depends on technology, enhancing both the customer and employee experience and industry opportunity, Gen Z is standing by with the characteristics and skills the industry needs. We are just going to have to rethink our current approach if we want them to drive our businesses forward into the future.

Who is Gen Z?

Generation Z, better known as Gen Z, is the youngest generation of workers, born in the late 1990s to 2000s, just after millennials. Forty-five percent are Hispanic, Black, or multiracial, making them the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history. This generation grew up in the middle of the Great Recession—they have seen their parents and other people around them quickly shift from financial security to struggling in a matter of months. Gen Z is also the first generation with lifelong access to technology (the iPhone was born in 2007). They have had on-demand access to education resources and have been witness to the impacts of crushing student debt.

Unsurprisingly, Gen Z has a reputation in the workforce for prioritizing financial stability, and they are rethinking the traditional education path—more than half are open to a path other than a four-year college. At the same time, they are in search of opportunities for career growth at a stable, mission-driven company they are passionate about. Despite being attributed to leading the Great Resignation, the pandemic and prospective recession have reinforced Gen Z’s hunger to stabilize their careers, and many have skipped service-level jobs to seek career pathways. If they are interested in what a company affords them, they will be hardworking, loyal and a good investment in your workforce.

Industry turnover and opportunity

In 2016, a Pinnacol employee demographics analysis showed that one-third of our workforce would be over 50 years old with 10 or more years of service. Regardless of a lack of interest and experience in the insurance industry pipeline, this analysis informed a serious call to continue to strategically attract new talent on a large scale. Given these trends, our recruitment strategy homed in on Gen Z, as we understood the future skill sets needed in our industry and the interests and talents of Gen Z overlapped, such as:

• Risk-aversion: They are looking for a stable career with an opportunity for growth.

• Eagerness to learn: They are prepared to help transfer institutional knowledge.

• Loyal and willing to work hard and invest their energy in a stable industry.

• Desire for flexibility, work/life balance, and global opportunities.

• Digital natives: This is the first generation to grow up fully immersed in technology.

With our Gen Z talent pipeline in full swing, aka the apprenticeship program, we continue to leverage our offerings to invite new talent into early-career positions. As employees have retired, our workforce demographics have shifted, and workers are now dispersed around different phases of their careers.

How can an organization leverage its offerings to invite new Gen Z talent? By creating a new pipeline for early-career positions? But how?

What Gen Z wants: Recruitment strategy 101

Creating a culture that fits

Gen Z is motivated by a cause-driven company culture that prioritizes work/life balance, a sense of community and mission, and stability. They are looking for meaningful work, opportunities for growth, and benefits that are not traditionally prioritized as part of a recruiting strategy, such as a hybrid work environment, mental health days, and paid time off. Gen Z tends to strongly believe in an employer-employee partnership and will notice if or when an organization is not fulfilling its promises.

As Pinnacol diversifies its recruitment strategy to attract Gen Z, we have worked to innovate our workplace culture and benefits structure to become key differentiators. Pinnacol places a high premium on caring not only for our customers but also for our staff; the company is dedicated to maintaining an engaged, happy and healthy workforce. We have seen that corporate values, workplace culture qualities, perks, and benefits are key contributors to improved staff morale, employee retention, and new talent acquisition. We offer flexible schedules, robust retirement and health benefits, and tuition reimbursement, and we prioritize and hold ourselves accountable for maintaining a caring culture that celebrates diversity and focuses on community and corporate responsibility.

Creating pathways for young people

As hiring trends emerged for the insurance industry, Pinnacol began plans to create new inroads for talent that would diversify our reach to the next generation of employees and the talent pool. We realized we needed access to diverse talent — and we needed to start sooner rather than later. We chose to invest in the necessary infrastructure to create opportunities to hire students directly out of high school and college, most notably by implementing our modern youth apprenticeship program.

At Pinnacol, we decided to go all-in. Hiring high school apprentices was uncharted territory for us. Over the past five years, our apprenticeship program has become an integral part of our talent acquisition strategy. Now we administer one of the largest youth apprenticeship programs in the country, with high school students comprising approximately 5% of our workforce at any given time.

“We invest in the necessary infrastructure to create opportunities to hire students directly out of high school and college, most notably by implementing our modern youth apprenticeship program”

Apprentices have supported over thirty-five teams at Pinnacol — in areas ranging from HR to software development. Our apprentices are hired in cohort groups each year, stay with us for two to three years, and work for key functions in business operations and technology while finishing high school, earning credentials, and taking college courses. They are paid a competitive hourly wage and have access to many of the robust benefits programs Pinnacol offers. Apprentice hiring is one of the biggest highlights of our program — since launching this initiative, we have converted nearly a dozen apprentices into full-time professional roles, including software developers, junior enterprise content managers, customer experience representatives and underwriting account managers.

Modern youth-based apprenticeships: Business ROI

Programs such as Pinnacol’s apprenticeship program, a natural element of the diversity pipeline, are transformational for a business. The program offers a strong return on our investment and impacts organizational culture, making a difference in the lives of young people. Each full-time apprentice who is placed in a full-time role saves the company thousands of dollars of hiring costs, and supervisors report that their hired full-time apprentices are at or above the caliber of talent they would have recruited externally. Pinnacol employees are extremely proud of this work and report that it has been one of the most rewarding parts of their careers.

The transformation does not end with apprentices. The program naturally builds an organizational culture of development and enhances staff development by creating supervisory positions. The program offers an unparalleled opportunity for up-and-coming staff leaders to gain leadership and management experience that increases management opportunities.

Apprentices come from diverse backgrounds that mirror the communities we support, offering a variety of perspectives on our work and culture. Increasing the influence of this workforce generation sooner can help us continually identify and modify the systems and products that will best serve our future policyholders.

The program also:

• Increases the diversity of our workforce.

• Expands our operational bandwidth.

• Increases opportunities for upskilling for in-demand talent.

• Builds an organizational culture of development, pride, and commitment.

• Enhances retention as apprentices build peer networks.

• Serves Colorado by strengthening relationships with schools, school districts, post-secondary institutions, students, parents, and employers.

Modern youth-based apprenticeships: a social good

Perhaps most importantly, the program offers opportunities that are transformational for individual students and society. One of our top software developers is a former apprentice — she is top tech talent straight out of high school. Another former apprentice was recently hired as a business development rep and represented us to the Senate HELP committee.

Early-career pathways multiply options for students and help them discover their own strengths, desires, and passions. The pathways expose them to job options without a long-term commitment and crushing debt. Many apprentices go to college with a better plan for their future after working with us. Many also go to college WHILE working with us and receive tuition reimbursement. And many jump right into working for us or for other companies, where they become valuable professional assets. Even apprentices who have not stayed with us have the skills to enter the economy as ambassadors, knowing our business, staying connected to our network, and potentially becoming future policyholders themselves.

Creating a culture that welcomes early-career pathways, such as an apprenticeship program, is a long-term commitment—similar to any other recruitment and/or diversity efforts being made. Developing such a program will be a powerful part of a workforce recruitment strategy. This is why early-career pathways are still as important to me as ever. If organizations are not thinking about how to attract top Gen Z talent, they are already behind.

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