Future workforce: where Gen Z wants to work and how startups can support them

Gen Z worker
UWaterloo’s Work-Learn Institute data finds Gen Z is looking for growth, impact, security, and balance.

Like every generation before them, Gen Z grew up watching their parents’ careers shift and change. Now Gen Z is entering the workforce seeing a very different opportunity landscape than those generations had access to.

The Work-Learn Institute (WxL) at the University of Waterloo aimed to look at the problem from the other side. WxL asked Gen Z what they look for in a company or career path and recently released a full data report on its findings. Speaking with BetaKit, Ross Johnston, Executive Director for the University of Waterloo’s Co-operative Education, shared his perspectives on WxL’s data and how startups can support and cultivate Gen Z talent.

Balance and ambition

According to the data, Gen Z has a clear desire to learn on the job. For example, 78.3 percent said that “professional training and development” was a very important or essential employer attribute. Yet Gen Z workers also want work-life balance, with 83.4 percent saying it was a very important or essential consideration. Job security (78.9 percent), and a competitive salary (75.8 percent) with good benefits like a pension or healthcare (76.1 percent) were also highly-rated desires.

77.8 percent of Gen Z prefers hybrid work, compared to only 14.4 percent who want solely in-office work and 7.8 percent who want solely remote.

The data also found that 77.8 percent of Gen Z prefers hybrid work, compared to only 14.4 percent who want solely in-office work and 7.8 percent who want solely remote. This data point seems to further reinforce the notion that Gen Z wants balance, with flexibility and boundaries between work and home being the top priorities when job searching.

However, this isn’t to say Gen Z prioritizes flexibility over ambition. 81.6 percent of those surveyed want clear promotion criteria, with 67.8 percent saying they want to discuss career goals with their employer, and 68.5 percent expressing a desire for leadership development opportunities. More to the point, they want their employers to help them progress: 87.4 percent said they want constructive feedback at work with 74.6 percent noting a desire for mentorship from senior leaders in the organization.

Speaking to the data, Johnston said he sees some commonalities between what Gen Z wants at work and Millennials, Gen X, Gen Y—even Baby Boomers. What’s unique about Gen Z, he added, is that they have observed more change than previous generations and are now speaking out.

“Students have seen parents or family members in the past go through real work-life or life-work balance challenges with their employer,” Johnston said. “And of course, as it comes to them, thinking about their future and what they might want to do when they graduate, then I think they have a strong connection to those values based on what they’ve seen.”

“But the great thing for me is that those values are being expressed more,” Johnston continued. “And I think it’s actually enabling the potential for a far better and healthier work environment going forward.”

Show me your values

When it comes to recruiting and retaining Gen Z talent, Johnston noted that the “big trick” is that Gen Z wants to see a company live its stated values when it comes to inclusion and equity, or environmental sustainability—and they aren’t afraid to ask for receipts.

“They’re looking for that balance of an employer that’s not just all about the bottom line results and stakeholder value,” said Johnston. “The stakeholder value now has become broader in terms of, okay, ‘What are you doing in terms of giving back to society?’”

For companies wondering how to prepare for Gen Z talent, the University of Waterloo also offers multiple different resources for employers within its Future Ready Talent Framework. For example, its equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) best practices for recruiting future-ready talent whitepaper outlines six different ways that companies can build inclusive talent pipelines, including bringing in a dedicated EDI team member if the resources are available to do so.

“It’s one thing to talk the talk; it’s another thing to walk it,” said Johnston. “So what they are looking for in an employer is tangible evidence that goes behind the words to see that these things are happening and that’s held to be really important, which I think is a good thing overall.”


Hiring managers on the fence should know there is financial support available for Canadian employers to offset the cost of hiring, training, and developing young talent. Programs include the Student Work Placement Program (SWPP), which covers up to 50 percent of an eligible student’s wages, the Mitacs Business Strategy Internship (BSI), which offers up to $7,500 to hire a student for a four-month term, as well as various geography-based funding schemes or tax credits for startups to hire students.

“They’re looking for that balance of an employer that’s not just all about the bottom line results and stakeholder value.”
– Ross Johnston

Johnston said that the University of Waterloo’s co-op program also provides support to employers so they can navigate this web of programs and pick out the right ones for their hiring needs.

“They’ll come in immediately with one potential thought of a hiring need in a specific area or for a specific job,” said Johnston. “And we’ll support them through to try and enable them to have a successful experience and attaining that hire.”

On the talent side, Johnston said the university’s co-op program helps meet the demands of employers. For example, students now go through four to six work terms, on average working with four different employers across three industries, giving them a breadth of experience they can bring to each internship or their first full-time employer. For students looking beyond traditional employment, Johnston noted the co-op program also features an “entrepreneurial co-op” where students work on a business plan which might qualify for incubation and support from the University or campus-linked accelerators like Velocity.

“That is a trigger for innovation, which then enables students to explore,” said Johnston.

Changes like these seem to be well-received by employers. Michael Litt, founder of centaur-hopeful Vidyard, is a Waterloo alum and frequent employer of Waterloo co-ops. In an interview with the university, he lauded the co-op program’s value.

“As new grads they’re graduating with two years of work experience, meaning when you’re hiring someone you don’t have to take them through that transition of being a full-time student to a full-time employee, which can be quite painful.”

Feature image courtesy Unsplash.

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios.

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