New Gen Z Graduates Are Fluent in AI and Ready To Join the Workforce

Hundreds of thousands of Gen Z students have experimented with AI, and in some cases, have been encouraged by their schools to explore it. Now as new hires, they're bringing their AI chops to work.

The Washington Post

June 28, 2023

7 Min Read
Z on a keyboard

It's not a hallucination. The youngest generation entering the workforce may be the most prepared to champion and use generative artificial intelligence at work.

For months, many of these up-and-comers have been exploring the technology's capabilities, sharpening their skills and learning how to best apply it to their tasks at hand. And while some are cautious about AI's potential harms, many are more fascinated than they are worried about the technology.

"I'm really excited about AI and what it can do," said Naomi Davis, a May graduate of business administration from Georgia Institute of Technology, who uses AI to help her clearly express her ideas in writing. "I used it every week [of my last semester], or at least played around with it."

Generative AI is making a big splash as it gets integrated into workplace tools like email providers, graphics editors, productivity tools and coding programs. Despite some leaders, including AI creators, warning about doomsday scenarios in which the tech takes over humanity, hundreds of thousands of Gen Z students -- those born between 1997 and 2012 -- have experimented with it, and in some cases, have even been encouraged by their schools to explore it. Now as new hires, Gen Z is bringing their AI chops to work, expediting more usage in the future. And young adults are more likely to use AI than their older counterparts at work, a recent Pew Research Center survey suggests.

Gen Z made up more than 13% of the civilian labor force last year, according to data the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that number is only expected to grow as the youngest of Gen Z, also known as Zoomers, are still several years from joining the workforce.

Since they were tykes, Zoomers have been exposed to digital devices and services - the oldest of the bunch were about a year old when Google launched. As a result, they tend to be open to exploring new technologies including AI, said Shaun Pichler, professor of management at the College of Business and Economics at California State University, Fullerton.

"They're the first digital native generation," he said, adding that many of the students grew up communicating digitally through text and social media. "They're used to using tech day in and day out."

Zoomers have relied on the chatbot, ChatGPT from OpenAI, to help them write cover letters, edit essays, formulate or clarify ideas, check code and even help with their finances. And some universities make generative AI part of their curriculum rather than banning it due to the fear of cheating.

That was the case for students who took Kyle Jensen's writing class at the Tempe campus of Arizona State University last semester. Jensen, also the director of writing programs, said he had already been exploring generative AI before ChatGPT debuted in November. For his class, Jenson wanted to educate his students and learn how they feel about and might use the tech.

"I thought this was an opportunity to teach AI literacy," he said. "Let's use this opportunity to think about different ways of applying AI and where it might be headed in the future."

The course, which 14 students took over 16 weeks, covered the history of artificial intelligence and gave students access to generative AI tools. Jensen then wanted students to discuss how they used the tools as well as their benefits and limits.

Ximena Vasquez Bueno, a 22-year-old writing major, said she used generative AI to edit some of her essays. The AI sometimes misinterpreted a long-winded sentence, which helped her realize where she could've been clearer and more concise. It corrected tense errors she missed, as Spanish is her first language, and showed her what she brings to the table.

"It helped me identify my voice as a writer better and how it differs from the AI," said Vasquez Bueno, a former computer science major who is considering a user experience writing career when she graduates next year. "I feel more comfortable using it for future projects."

AI is also serving as a research resource for Zoomers. Cortez Hill, a business and theater major who expects to graduate from the University of Michigan next year, said he used generative AI to understand complex investment concepts by asking for terms a 5-year-old would understand and finding sources he could use for a paper.

"It is scary how it's evolving into our world, but I'm open to leaning into that discomfort," he said. "Our world is just shifting."

But the tech isn't just helping Zoomers with writing prose. Daniel Osorno Villamil, a May computer science graduate from Georgia Tech, said he's used ChatGPT to double check his math and review code. He once fed it 300 lines of code and asked it to find the problem, which it did. Generative AI also has helped him with his finances, finding areas to reduce costs, he said. He said he's excited to see how he can leverage it at his new software engineering job at Microsoft in the fall.

"Having something like that to do the boiler plate code and give me time to figure out actual problems - the prospect of that is exciting," he said. "I've always really loved technology, so it's more exciting than it is concerning."

While some coders have worried about being replaced by AI, Edith Llontop, who graduated in May with a degree in electrical engineering and computer sciences from the University of California, Berkeley, said she expects to work alongside it rather than be displaced.

"The coding can be left to generative models, but a lot of the creative process that is a part of a software developer's job likely won't," she said. "We don't code blindly . . . it's about what can you bring to the table to advance the science."

Davis, the graduate from Georgia Tech who's joining Google in August, says her experience shows that the tech is only as good as the human driving it. The 21-year-old has used it for idea generation and fleshing out and clarifying her thoughts. But even then, she has to check or edit everything. She once had a chatbot write code, but after review realized that the result was pretty basic.

"I really calmed down after that," she said. "I realized you still need to put in your brain power to make it look good."

But the explosion of AI has changed some young people's paths. Rona Wang, who recently graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with degrees in math and computer science, turned down a tech job she thinks could be subject to automation. Instead, she opted to pursue a master's degree in programming that's closer to the hardware.

"Absolutely it's about staying ahead of the curve," she said. "A good rule of thumb is looking for jobs and skills that require [judgment] or research in some way."

Zoomers aren't ignoring possible harms, despite their excitement. Some say they're worried about the implications of AI, including its ability to spread misinformation, make people lazy to learn, raise the bar for entry-level jobs and become a way for employers to cut costs - even if it means lowering the quality of work.

Andrew Otchere, who got his acting degree from the University of Michigan, said the writers strike in Hollywood made him feel conflicted. He sees value in using AI for character development research but also worries that companies could use it for production or creative writing and other areas he's hoping to pursue.

"I just really am worried we may fall into the habit of becoming too reliant on AI, valuing profits over people," he said. "That's really scary because [creativity is] one of my strongest assets."

But AI's artistic abilities aren't that impressive yet, at least not in music, said Michigan arts graduate Nolan Ehlers, who just completed his master's in percussion and chamber music. He has watched some of his peers experiment with how it can be used to generate music. But having used it himself for cover letters, he thinks it might be more suited for administrative tasks.

"Whether you like it or not it's here," he said. "So you might as well learn how to use it now and get all the benefits. It won't do us much good to nervously avoid it."

For many Zoomers, AI is mostly seen a new technology to help save time and build new skills.

"I don't feel like this is a phase," said Mashal Imtiaz, a Berkeley graduate and new Microsoft software engineer, adding that she's comfortable with the tech but hasn't yet used it at work. "This is one of those things that will be used and only more and more . . . and it's just going to become part of our daily lives."

--Danielle Abril, The Washington Post

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