Credit: Daniel Lee

The class of 2023 is about to enter a very weird job market.

Employers will be hiring more new graduates than last year, but not by a lot—and, due to mass layoffs in some industries, fewer than initially predicted. The National Association of Colleges and Employers expects about a 4% increase in hiring recent grads, compared to 15% projected in the fall.

One way higher education has diversified itself is by attracting students who are the first in their families to attend college. For this population—who make up one-third of college students—more challenges await when they graduate and land jobs. The median household income of first-generation college graduates is just under $100,000, compared to $135,800 for continuing-generation graduates.

Employers are often ill-equipped to help new employees navigate these struggles. Think new hires who don’t know they can or should inform a supervisor they are sick and will be out. Or getting tongue-tied when called upon to contribute to a meeting—you can only “read the room” if you know how the room works, after all. Remote work and hybrid setups make this even harder.

And yet students with non-traditional backgrounds often have diverse and unique lived experiences that can serve the workplace very well. “Companies should look for and prioritize this reimagined relevant experience in candidates,” says Byron Slosar, founder and CEO at hellohive, a recruiting platform focused on self-described diverse, “next-gen” talent. “The resiliency demonstrated in these types of successes more than compensates for less formal experience on their resumes, compared to their peers who come in with personal and professional networks.”

If we made the workplace more accessible and easily navigable to first-generation new graduates, everyone would benefit. I talked to a mix of experts looking to bridge gaps between college graduates and workplace readiness to gauge how employers and talent might do better.

It’s lonely at the bottom

Kalani Leifer launched the nonprofit COOP Careers to solve for the “messier space” in the transition from education to work. Today, COOP assists recent Black, Latinx, and first-generation graduates to overcome underemployment in the tech field through a digital training program that bridges skill, wage, and network gaps.

There’s also strength in a cohort. “The term ‘first-generation graduate’ is powerful because it contains multitudes: trailblazing triumph, family pressure, and the inherent challenge of going first. All too often, though, being the first also means being the only—and that’s where companies can step up,” Leifer says.

He advises companies not to just let the most junior member of a team be the only first-generation graduate or only person of color, but to ensure such folks pervade all ranks of the organization. “When that’s not possible in the short term, ensure that first-gen, early-career employees are connected to peers and near-peers across teams and functions,” he says. “Careers are hard, but they shouldn’t be lonely.”

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Support and clarity are key

In a column I wrote last year, a new hire recounted all the things not covered in employee handbooks: “Like, ‘What are the rules for saving document names?’ That’s a type of question you need answered immediately,” the person told me. “In an office, if you see someone not busy, you can just ask them. When you’re home, you can’t tell. So I would just sit there with the document open, unsure what to do, waiting for someone to tell me what to name it. I felt so stupid.”

I’ve thought about these words a lot each time we’ve onboarded new hires in my company, to the point that I have been explicit on using the example as one where staffers should feel free to reach out and call if they are stuck. But even that action doesn’t account for power dynamics and workplace hierarchies. Most experts I talk to said employers need to be seeking feedback more often than giving it.

“We are experiencing a misalignment in expectations from organizations and employees,” says Wagner Denuzzo, a startup adviser and member of the CxO network of A.Team, a members-only platform for companies and matches projects with “product builders.” “Employees are seeking more clarity on the new rules of the workplace.”

Thus, feedback must go two ways: “It is critical for employers to seek the feedback from their new employees. In turn, it is fair to assume new employees will benefit from feedback that can help them be successful and deliver high performance within their managers’ expectations,” Denuzzo says. “Most early-in-career employees are asking for more frequent feedback so they know where they stand and can adjust accordingly.”

Onboarding is critical.

How a new job starts sets a tone for performance. Training programs are one solution for the transition. Some other onboarding suggestions:

  • Start onboarding the minute an offer is accepted. This can include shipping laptops, filling out forms, and planning how to announce the new hire internally and externally.
  • As a manager, commit to checking in with the new hire every day for the first two weeks.
  • Create cohorts or buddy groups so they feel less alone.
  • Send company swag and lunch on the first day if they’re remote, or take them to lunch and have the swag waiting on their desk if their first day is in person.
  • Jointly devise a 30-60-90 plan so they have an idea what to expect and major milestones for the first three months on the job. (Nearly a third of employees have quit within the first six months on the job.)

Remote work can be further isolating

In a much-shared column over the weekend, New York Times journalist Maureen Dowd lamented how the end of in-person work meant an end to the “electric and full of eccentric characters” workplace she came of age in, and the “incredible camaraderie and panache” that helped people grow. Dowd called her latest column a “final obituary for the American newspaper newsroom.”

I agree with her that many of my most fundamental lessons have come from eavesdropping on colleagues at work, how they pushed, cajoled and handled the people on the other end to get what they needed. But I also remember some of the newsrooms I worked in as incredibly toxic, isolating places with little support for people of color or those who had no connections in the media. In one early newsroom gig, I was told the job was 40 hours a week. After a few Fridays where I left at 1:00 pm because I thought I was done, an administrative assistant took me aside and told me not to take it all so literally, that most people actually worked well past the requisite hours. I went to the other extreme for the next decade or so of my career, often working nights and weekends to get ahead. Besides so many unspoken rules exist in our workplaces, oftentimes written practices (which new entrants and outsiders like me might study to fit in better) defy actual norms.

Despite the uneven nature of white-collar work right now—some offices are fully in person, others fully remote, many exist somewhere in between—there are ways to create collisions and eavesdropping among colleagues of different ages, experiences, and backgrounds. One that I still use is allowing junior colleagues to eavesdrop on my interviews (often for this column, dialing in via Zoom) so they can get a sense of tone and pace.

Be upfront that this version of work is new and evolving. “We are now dealing with the first wave of new entrants into the hybrid workplace, and that in itself is a challenge for organizations, as well as the new employee who has to adapt to new ways of working, find opportunities to build connections, and develop relationships quickly to assimilate to the new environment,” says Denuzzo.

Another challenge is the inconsistency with which workers talk about their needs. Some staffers readily share, for example, that they are on their way to therapy, while others keep their personal life private and separate. Take employee cues on how and whether to broach these subjects; managers should create psychological safety while ensuring there isn’t constant pressure to share, unless it relates to performance. And leaders should make sure an array of services are offered—and that employees are aware of their existence.

“Access to opportunity also means having talent support services and resources to enable talent to thrive in their career, including childcare, coaching, mentorship, financial literacy training, mental-health services, stipends, technology access, transportation, and more,” says Debbie Dyson, CEO of OneTen, a coalition of executives and companies committed to hiring one million Black people without four-year degrees into family-sustaining careers. She stresses the need to support “the whole person.”

Belief is everything

Should new workplace entrants, whether first-generation college graduates or otherwise, be measured differently than everyone else? What is the place for demanding excellence and hard work?

The experts I spoke to gently suggested I examine the bias inherent in my question. “Equity doesn’t mean lowering expectations for some and not others,” says Leifer. “Equity means each person has the tools and support they need to succeed, which looks slightly different for everyone.”

Both he and Dyson steered me away from the word “demand” when it comes to excellence. They say my job, and the job of all of us as employers, is to actually “unlock” excellence.

The difference instantly became clear to me: We should see new hires as partners in performance and meet their potential, versus forcing them into the old ways of working. Thus, diversifying our workplaces—whether by age or race or educational attainment—is ultimately a means to improving them.

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