Recruiting and Retaining Generation Z

By Alex Atherton, Gen Z speaker, Leadership Coach and former Headteacher

The most recent recruitment figures to the profession do not make comfortable reading. The crisis is not going away any time soon.

Yet the most recent figures show that there are more teachers in our schools than ever. The issue, as so many heads are painfully aware, is the high attrition rate. For a country with a young teaching workforce this is a particular problem. 

Resolving the recruitment and retention crisis means finding and holding on to members of Gen Z, whose years of birth are between 1995 and 2009 (currently mid-teens to late twenties). Over the last ten years, the percentage of the country’s teachers who are in their twenties has fallen at exactly the point it needed to rise.
I was a headteacher from 2006 to 2018. My first Year 7 group was also the first Gen Z cohort to reach secondary school. In recent years, I have become increasingly concerned about how those young people are described in the media and by those my own age. 

In the end, I heard the word ‘snowflake’ once too often and decided my generation needed a different message. This was particularly as my coaching clients across various industries were telling me of the same staffing issues. I carried out a research project, including focus group work, and pulled my findings together. A small selection of those findings is discussed in this blog. 

Gen Z is different - and for good reason
The oldest went through their teenage years in an age of ‘austerity’ following the global financial crash. This was accompanied by relatively low economic growth compared to the Millennials (years of birth 1980 to 1994) who came before them. Once they had negotiated that they have had the aftermath of Brexit, Covid-19, and the cost-of-living crisis affecting their earliest years in the workplace.

It has made them more prudent and apprehensive, amongst other key characteristics. I also argue they are a pragmatic generation. Employers who complain about their Gen Z staff ‘leaving on the dot’ often do not appreciate they leave because they have a second job, or business to run, because one income does not pay the bills. A key lesson from the pandemic is that those who were ‘last in, were first out’. Gen Z has learned to spread its bets.

Those in education will also know of Gen Z’s diligence. Although comparisons at GCSE are not straightforward, given the change in grading methodology, it can be easily seen at university level. The percentage of first class degrees doubled over the 2010s to approximately a third, even with the university population growing by a sixth in this period. Gen Z works hard.

They are also ‘digital natives’, many of whom growing up with technology their parents and teachers knew little about. The dangers still exist of course, but adults are in a far stronger position to offer guidance now even if the regulation still has a long way to go.

What can schools and trusts do to resolve the issue? Although the powers to change the fundamental terms and conditions of the job remain with central government, and ‘teaching from home’ is not going to be a possibility for many any time soon, there are principles to pursue.

Principle 1: Be clear, be thorough
Gen Zs have many good reasons to be suspicious. They include inheriting a very poor set of financial circumstances, alongside responsibility for resolving expensive issues around an ageing population and climate change. They have been bombarded by clickbait all their lives. Filtering out what is not useful, truthful or interesting absorbs a lot of energy. 

If you want to recruit and retain the best you need to be ultra clear. You should ensure that all the detail anyone may ever wish to see is available. Collectively, clarity and detail generate transparency and that is the starting point for trust.

Gen Zs are looking for ambitious schools and trusts who know what they are about and seek high-calibre candidates. All those coming out of university with first class degrees did not put in the work only to end up with an employer happy to get what they could.

Schools will never be able to offer the kind of flexibility on offer elsewhere but note that not everyone wants it. It was Gen Z who was back in the workplace first after Covid, not least because the cost of living means their working conditions at home do not rival those from the older generations. I would recommend you are clear about exactly the level of flexibility on offer and how you came to that decision. 

Principle 2: Be who you say you are
The battle for retention starts pretty much as soon as your Gen Z employees arrive and does not let up. The key is that they need to find what was described on appointment. Authenticity counts for everything. Gen Z employees would rather see you for what you are, rather than what you want them to see.

Also note that Gen Z’s engagement in social media means that if they do not find what they expected that others can know about it very quickly, and in a way which can have long-lasting consequences. 

You need to go further than you might feel reasonable in terms of being open and transparent. There is nothing wrong with saying ‘these are our weaknesses and this is how you can help’. You may find this piques interest, in that the role is something more than coming in at the bottom of an organisation.

Principle 3: Make it easy to apply
Microsoft Word formatting nightmares and clunky website forms need to be a thing of the past. Fully optimised mobile application forms which take minutes to complete will increase the number of applicants. If you really want 500 words of prose tailored exactly to the job available you might get them, but in highly limited quantity. 
Your application process is the best window into your school on offer. It is your opportunity to look efficient, ambitious and open. How good is yours?

The next issue, already a hot topic in many schools, is Gen Z’s reluctance to take on additional responsibilities. This is creating a succession planning issue at both middle and senior level. 

Gen Z is the most important generational change so far. There are significant opportunities for organisations who see past the ‘snowflake’ trope and understand how their propensity for hard work and stellar academic outcomes can combine to best effect.

Alex Atherton is a former secondary school headteacher, senior leader leadership coach and Gen Z speaker. He led a workshop about Gen Z at the ASCL Annual Conference 2024 in March. 
Posted: 23/05/2024 10:38:53