Anna Nixon is seemingly tireless. She’s the cofounder of an educational nonprofit. She’s an award-winning roboticist with more than nine years’ experience. She’s an accomplished conference speaker and a teacher. And one more thing: She’s a high school junior.
At 16, Nixon has received more accolades than most will in their entire professional careers. Most recently, she commanded an audience of more than 9,000 at the annual Autodesk University conference in Las Vegas. And she did so with the authority of a speaker twice her age or more. That confidence is evident in all she does, whether teaching programming classes at STEM4Girls, the nonprofit she cofounded with her dad, or leading her school’s FIRST Robotics Competition team.
It’s safe to say that Nixon is a superstar—the exact type of candidate employers will be clamoring to hire when she and her Generation Z counterparts enter the workplace in a few years. But to attract and ultimately hire high-performing candidates like Nixon, employers must prove they have what this generation wants.
Here, Nixon offers some advice to employers looking ahead to Generation Z in the workplace.
1. Ensure an Open and Diverse Workforce. “I want to work with people with really different backgrounds,” Nixon says. “I think that’s really important because the best ideas come from groups where people don’t think exactly alike.” What’s more, the work environment should encourage everyone to speak up and share opinions openly, “even if it seems slightly ridiculous,” she says.
Creating a diverse workforce—especially in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields that interest Nixon—means recruiting men and women equally. Nixon started in robotics as a second grader, so she’s already experienced what it’s like to work in a male-dominated setting. “You feel more at ease when there are more people like you,” she says. “And when you’re the only girl in a group of guys, it’s a little awkward at first, and you feel a little more hesitant to speak up. That means you don’t necessarily get out there as much; you don’t go for the opportunities that you’re presented with.”
But Nixon has already seen the gender balance improve on her robotics team, which hopefully bodes well for future employment. “On our team, each year, you can see that there are more girls,” she says. “And that’s awesome because that’s when the playing field becomes even.”
2. Tout Industry Innovations. “It’s really important for industries to show how much they’ve changed over time and what they’re doing that’s new, because younger people like to see that,” Nixon says.
A case in point is the construction industry, which is suffering a labor shortage, in part, because it hasn’t recruited enough millennials to fill the positions left by retiring boomers. “A lot of people don’t realize how things have changed from before,” Nixon says. “You think construction is the same thing it was 20, 30 years ago, and you don’t see all the leaps of innovation that the construction industry has made. So it doesn’t seem interesting. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, my grandfather did that; my great-grandfather did that. I don’t want to do it.’”
To change that mind-set, Nixon encourages industries to market themselves better and make their innovations known—keeping an adequately staffed workforce may depend on it.
3. Provide Learning Opportunities. In her Autodesk University presentation, Nixon stated that the most valuable asset to a future worker will be the ability to learn—and learn fast. After all, the pace of technological discovery demands that workers keep learning. “Organizations will have to figure out ways to keep learning interesting so that the next generation of workers remains excited and productive,” she says.
One way is through hands-on educational experiences. “I don’t think you can sit a bunch of people in a lecture hall and then have them just absorb everything,” Nixon says. “That’s what makes robotics so fun—because you’re actually building things and you see the product of what you’ve done. Introducing little projects that let you see what you need to do and then help you learn the skills along the way, that’s the best way to teach.”
The good news for employers, per Nixon, is that future workers don’t necessarily need to learn things as deeply as their predecessors. Consider calculators: Today’s students don’t have to invest as much time in learning how to find a square root by hand because they already have the tools to help them do that. “That doesn’t mean we know math any less than the older generations do,” she says. “We just don’t have to learn the same amount in the same direction, so we can move forward faster.”
4. Demand Excellence From Workers. For starters, that means abandoning the notion of minimum viable product (MVP). Nixon knows about MVPs—they’re often what she and her robotics team submit to early competitions: robots that barely accomplish what they need to do. “Our justification for this is, we’re not professionals,” she says. “I thought it was really funny that even though the stakes are higher and people are better trained, nothing really changes when you enter the workforce.”
That shouldn’t be the case, she says. Instead, employers should demand more of their workers by providing the tools and the teams for their employees to produce their best work possible. “Workers of the future won’t have time to invest in learning a whole bunch of complex tools to bring their ideas out to the world,” Nixon says. “This means we need efficient tools that we can learn quickly, and those tools have to be able to learn along with us.”
Those tools must also support the way Generation Z works: collaboratively. “I’ve never worked on an engineering project alone,” Nixon says. “The further I advanced, the more I collaborated with larger and larger teams. And I want tools that let us design our products together, as a cohesive unit.
“I want to work in a place where I can love coming to work every day,” she continues. So take note, future employers, and heed her advice. The future of work depends on Generation Z.