Young people are suddenly interested in working for the military industrial complex.
For new college grads, the tech industry is out, and the defense industry is in. Well, sort of.
Companies like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin saw some of the biggest jumps in search interest by this year’s grads on the popular college career site Handshake. Meanwhile, not a single tech company made the top 10. When it came to applying for work, there was huge growth in the number of applications to jobs in government, law, and politics (84 percent); energy (53 percent); and pretty much every industry that isn’t tech, although that grew too (8 percent). This likely reflects the overall 24 percent growth in full-time applications this year, as students struggle with a rougher job market than last year.
If you don’t spend a lot of time with Gen Z, it might be confusing that such an idealistic and tech-savvy generation would want to work for defense contractors or the government. But talking with new grads, it starts making sense. They don’t have the same associations as millennials like me who witnessed — and protested — the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they have been exposed to lots of other chaos in their young lives and now crave stability. Some see that in defense jobs as well as more tried-and-true industries. Chevron, Boeing, Bank of America, and NASA also topped the list as far as growth in interest.
“Financial stability is really important,” said Emma Fringuelli, a new Smith graduate who has accepted a job at a newspaper north of Boston. Journalism isn’t the most stable career these days, either, but stability looks different in the humanities. “Any job is a good job because you actually have something that can sustain you,” she said.
Some 85 percent of 2023 grads said stability was important to them, according to a Handshake report this year, up from 74 percent at the beginning of their senior year. It was the most important thing they considered when applying for a job — something that’s not usually the case. Historically, things like pay and brand name have topped the list, according to Handshake.
“I have worked at four different institutions, and I have advised thousands of students,” Christine Cruzvergara, Handshake’s chief education strategy officer, told me. “And stability historically has not been one of the top factors for what students would look at.”
Why are Gen Z grads so focused on job security and stability?
There are a few reasons why the latest graduating class cares so much for stability.
Though still young at the time, the class of 2023 was old enough to know its parents or friends’ parents lost jobs during the Great Recession, and to feel the stress and economic fallout from it.
“I remember driving through the neighborhood seeing people who had been evicted and all their stuff on the lawn,” said Mary Miller, a recent global studies graduate who has secured a job as a public engagement coordinator at a nonprofit. “It was kind of scary as a kid.”
Then, halfway through their first year at college, the pandemic hit, causing massive layoffs and upending many students’ college experience.
“This class in particular has experienced a completely different year, every single year of their entire college experience,” Cruzvergara said. “From freshman to senior year, they have experienced nothing that has looked exactly the same as the year before.”
Nina Stevens, who will soon graduate from law school and has a job lined up with a law firm, said she hadn’t really considered stability before the pandemic. “Covid really recalibrated that for me,” she said. “I feared that I would end up unemployed again, watching all my friends go through that and having to move back home. I didn’t want that to happen.”
Now, just as they’re graduating college and should be entering the job market, news of layoffs at the tech companies that have been expanding their whole lives is blanketing the headlines. A recession continues to loom, threatening what’s been a strong job market. It’s a confusing economy for everyone, let alone people just starting out in it.
Gen Z may not dream of labor, but they know they have to work to live. And they don’t necessarily see that drive as compromising their other ideals, such as having a positive impact on the world and maintaining work-life balance.
They’re just trying to thread that needle.
Apparently, government jobs and even defense contractors can fit, though that wasn’t what I heard from any of the 10 or so grads I spoke with. The new grads are keen to find stable work — and many already have — but they also want to feel like that work is doing good in the world. They’re willing to work hard but say they have boundaries around hours, demand flexibility, and want their employer to acknowledge there’s more to life than work — a sentiment at home with a lot of the larger work conversation that has defined the Great Resignation.
“I want to work somewhere where I know people, and they know me, and there is an understanding that we are people outside our jobs,” said Jessica Nowak, a cinema major graduating from San Francisco State University.
Gen Z is more likely than other generations to say they’re looking for a new job that better aligns with their values, has more opportunities, and pays more, according to a survey last year by LinkedIn.
It’s ostensibly not much to ask for, but it’s more than other generations have.
What job market is the class of 2023 entering?
Grads might just get what they want thanks in part to the fact that, despite ongoing concerns about the economy, the job market is actually very good. Unemployment hasn’t been this low in more than 50 years. The situation holds for new grads, even if the picture isn’t as rosy as last year.
Employers are planning to hire 4 percent more graduates from the Class of 2023 than they did from the Class of 2022, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That’s lower than they had estimated last fall but still represents notable growth.
Payroll and HR platform Gusto is forecasting a similar story. Hiring of 20- to 24-year-olds into full-time salaried positions this month is expected to grow by 5.4 percent, down from 7.2 percent growth in May 2022. So the labor market for new graduates is still growing but at a slower rate.
“It’s coming down from its peak of the last two years, but it’s coming back to levels that we had seen in prior years,” Gusto economist Luke Pardue said. “It’s not falling off a cliff like a lot of the headlines might lead people to think.”
In other words, the labor market for grads looks a lot more like 2018 or 2019 than 2008 or 2009.
Part of the challenge for new grads will be understanding that there are jobs out there, even if they have to look harder than in recent years.
“There are still opportunities. It just may be a little bit more difficult, and it may take a little more persistence,” said Kelli Smith, assistant vice president for student success at Binghamton University. “We’re encouraging them to not let those challenges get them down to the point where they’re not applying anymore.”
Though pain can certainly be found elsewhere, much of the layoffs have been isolated to the tech industry. But that doesn’t mean things are bleak for tech grads, either.
Graduates with degrees in things like computer science are widening their net to industries outside of tech, where their skills are still hugely in demand. For tech majors, Handshake saw an 8 percent drop in applications to tech companies this year compared with a year ago, but saw a growth in applications to all other industries, including health care, government, and nonprofits.
Two computer science majors I spoke with, roommates at Brown University, are headed into the music industry. Chance Emerson plans to tour as a folk-pop musician, while Jack Riley is planning on doing freelance music production.
They both stumbled on something they’re more passionate about than computer science in recent years, but that doesn’t mean they’re forgoing it entirely. Emerson, for example, has created a startup that helps other musicians connect with their fans. Both also work remotely for mentor program Curious Cardinals.
“One thing I will say about stability is that I’m excited to have a computer science degree for myself because I’m not worried about finding a job if I need to,” Emerson said.