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Generation Z students prepare to enter workforce

A Friday night consisting of pizza and beer might not sound very exceptional in the life of the average college student. But for the residents of Duke's InCube living community, the college staples are fuel for the entrepreneurial spirit.

"It's kind of a hacker culture just because of a lot of people are doing technology startups," said Tom Schuhmann, an InCube resident and a Duke senior. The community consists of campus apartments connected by a common room and serves as an incubator for Duke's undergraduate entrepreneurs, all of whom are working on a startup or are on the hunt for their next project.

"People are up really late in the common room, ordering pizza and working on the startups," he said. "It's a little nerdy, but we enjoy it."

When Schuhmann graduates in May, he won't be looking for your run-of-the-mill job. Neither will many of his cohorts.

This year's crop of college graduates will -- by some accounts -- mark the first entrants of Generation Z into the workplace. And as the generation trades textbooks and all-nighters for cubicles and conference calls, states are trying to figure out how to accommodate this generation's creative tendencies and retain their brainpower.

"This is a generation that wants to be able to contribute their ideas to organizations from Day 1," said Anita Brown-Graham, director of N.C. State's Institute for Emerging Issues. "The notion of waiting your turn in line is completely foreign to them," she said. "The workplace will change some of their expectations about what is reasonable, but it's also true that workplaces are going to have to find ways to accommodate this generation."

For its purposes, the institute defines the generation as those born between 1990 and 2002.

The institute hopes to discuss the unique traits of the generation and what challenges may lie ahead as its members come of age.

"For the first time, we face a scenario where one generation is likely to be less well off than their parents' generation on a number of criteria including earnings, overall quality of life, health and life expectancy," Brown-Graham said.

Seeing these economic shifts, however, may be yet another advantage that Generation Z has grown up with, said Andrew Yang, founder of the Venture for America program. The program places graduating seniors in the front lines of a startup for two years with the aim of preparing them to become entrepreneurs.

"The current college student has seen their parents and their peers trust in large institutions and then sometimes be disappointed," Yang said. "Organizations that people would not have thought were the least bit unstable a number of years ago have proven to be much more volatile.

"This generation is more interested in equipping themselves with an array of skills that they can trust in than they are in investing a decade or two with the same company."

Reeling Generation Z into the workplace is one thing. Accommodating the way they work is an entirely different story, Brown-Graham said.

"The notion that there are certain times you're working and certain times off of work is foreign to them," she said. "This is a generation on a more social level. They're going to want more flexible work schedules."

Other adjustments employers may have to make is the speed at which they operate and the drive that motivates Generation Z to do more.

To adjust to both of these conditions, Goldstein suggests that companies streamline and reduce bureaucracy.

"Information is flowing way too fast to have a lot of hierarchy," he said. "Our students understand that. They don't have time for it. Flat organizations can process information and make decisions much faster."

But the last, perhaps best, piece of advice for learning how to work with Generation Z is given by Gary Alan Miller, an assistant director at UNC's career services office.

"As I work with students, there's as much difference as there is commonality," he said. "Any time we're trying to generalize, there's always going to be a challenge."