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Author: Andrea Estey

When Larry Gadea was just 17 years old and studying for high school finals, Google called, asking if he wanted a job. Gadea, who began programming at age 8, had reverse engineered his own plug-in for Google Desktop Search. His plug-in took off, and Google noticed.

Rather than going straight to work, Gadea opted to work part time for the tech giant through college. After graduation, he went on to Twitter, and is now the CEO and founder of his own tech startup, Envoy.

According to new research from Universum, 15 percent of North American students are interested in going directly from high school to the workforce. And a whopping 60 percent say they’d welcome information about how companies offer education to those with no degrees. Gadea, however, stands by his choice to go to college instead of straight to work.

“Every few months I get an email from a student asking, ‘Should I go to college?’ I usually say, ‘I strongly recommend it.’ It builds character, and it shows your persistence,” says Gadea. Plus, he says it takes an extremely driven person to learn all the skills a software engineer needs. “From ages eight to eighteen, I was in front of my computer, teaching myself.”

Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2015, is just beginning to enter the workforce. And although these people are young, the tech industry can’t ignore them.

The Race for Tech Talent

In the coming years, Gen Z will play a key role in meeting the demand for innovative thinking and will help fill the talent gap left behind by retiring baby boomers. In a 2016 PwC survey, 72 percent of global CEOs cited skill shortages as a threat to their businesses, and 81 percent say they’re searching for a wider mix of skills than before.

And the competition for talent is fierce. From Universum’s survey of more than 1.5 million young career seekers worldwide, it’s clear that students are considering more and more employers. And, while tech companies are often at the top of the list, all global companies are in the race for the best and brightest engineering and IT students. As a result, these companies are also hunting for talent earlier and earlier –often high schoolers or younger– as the competition heats up.

From Diplomas to Desk Jobs

Why are so many students in Generation Z looking to go from diploma to straight to work? In part, it’s because they’re the first true digital natives who grew up with unlimited information at their fingertips. Recent studies have claimed they use an average of five screens, and some even poke fun of the "claim" that the average Gen Zer's attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish.

All that digital savviness, combined with the fact that Gen Z was born into a world with overwhelming student debt, has led to a belief in self-education. About 33 percent of this generation already uses the web to learn, and in Universum’s recent Generation Z study, only 38 percent of U.S. students say college is doing a good job preparing them for the workforce.

As Gadea points out, today it’s easier than ever to teach yourself tech-related skills. “If you’re learning a programming language, it’s easier. Programmers want other people to learn their language. So they make all kinds of videos and tutorials.”

With the rise of movements like Silicon Valley’s UnCollege and the fact that an increasing number of top companies such as Google and Facebook no longer require college degrees for many tech jobs, more of Gen Z is interested in early internships and apprenticeships than any prior generation. Lane Sutton, marketing and employer brand strategist (and a current undergrad to boot), says many fellow students are finding their interests, passions, and work desires earlier, and many are more career-driven. “Because of all the opportunities for students in coding, tech, and business - like internships, summer programs, and camps - students are more prepared for the workforce, offer more skill, and know what they like doing.”

Gadea says his company, Envoy, doesn’t strongly consider degrees when hiring a candidate. “The main thing we look at is what they do in their free time. If I see they actually spend time on a computer, working on an open source project or a robot, that shows they have passion in the industry that’s not defined by being paid.”

Employers can help shape the career path of Gen Z by sponsoring STEM programs and offering apprenticeships. For example, Oracle recently took it one step further and announced plans to build an educational institution on its high-tech campus. Employers should also consider what they can offer as a supplement or replacement for traditional degrees.

Speak the Language

We’ve been hearing about the importance of technical skills for years, and students know that having these skills gives them a competitive advantage. This has given students the luxury of being discerning. That’s why it’s key for employers to deliver the right message in the right way. Google knows that in order to recruit top engineering talent, the company must speak the language. The tech giant has been known to target prospective hires based on relevant search history and offer them interactive coding challenges right in their browsers.

GE is using technology in a different way to tell its brand’s story. Jennifer Stefanik, GE’s global program director for HR Learning and Development, says, “We use virtual reality to draw in young talent and let them experience what it’s actually like to be on a locomotive or in an advanced manufacturing facility.”

A Streak of Independence

Another contributing factor to Gen Z members' desire to skip higher education is their entrepreneurial spirit. Universum’s research shows the majority of respondents are interested in setting up their own businesses; 60 percent want to be their own bosses. This may stem in part from the rise of disruptive players such as Uber and Tesla in the tech world, and the explosion of entrepreneur culture in the media. Shane Bernstein, managing director of Q, an IT and digital talent firm based in Los Angeles, adds that loyalty for this generation is at the micro level (the team) and not the macro level (the organization).

“They’re interested in what they can learn, what projects they’ll be working on, what kind of direct impact they’ll have during their employment, and who they’ll be learning from.” An example of this is Apple, which hires on a team-by-team basis. Although Gadea is now an entrepreneur, he says he uses what he learned at Google and Twitter every day, and that experience at larger companies was invaluable. “It’s a lot easier these days to start a company. But you still need the fundamentals.”

Looking Ahead

The importance of technical skills has shaped, and will continue to shape, the changes in work and education. Only time will tell how education will continue to evolve. In the meantime, one thing is clear: Young tech talent is on the brink of deciding where their careers are headed, and now’s the time for employers to be a part of that decision process.