You’ve heard plenty about the baby boomers and their offspring, Generation X and Generation Y.

Meet the digital generation of the work force

Margi Prueitt
Produce Marketing Association

Now meet Generation Z’s digital natives — and get ready for the profound cultural and business shift that is coming with them.

Digital natives and digital immigrants are terms coined by author Marc Prensky in 2001.

He was one of the first to predict the influence of digital media on learning styles. Prensky defines natives as those young people who were born after the introduction of digital technology.

They have always had at least one electronic device in their hands, be it a mobile phone, game system, laptop or tablet. They learn and communicate very differently, preferring pictures, sounds and videos to words, and hyper-links to user-created content.

Their global connections helped create a profound social conscience, with 61% of natives feeling responsible for making a difference and 83% saying they will trust a company more if it is socially or environmentally responsible.

Natives socialize via Facebook and Twitter, they converse by text and instant messaging.
Chances are you’ve noticed their ability to converse without speaking a word, or their habit of simultaneously consuming multiple media.

It’s not a lack of attention span, but an example of how this generation thinks and acts differently from most of your current work force — those digital immigrants who can remember life before desktop computers and e-mail.

Digital immigrants still typically rely on real world social connections. They are linear thinkers and processors, relying on text information from a single source, rather than multiple sources.

Prepare for the future

In this decade, digital natives will profoundly disrupt our business in two ways: as employees, and as consumers of your products. Are you ready?

For employers, our job will be to attract the most talented of these kids as new employees.

The Produce Marketing Association has consistently identified “attracting talented people to the industry” as one of the key long-term challenges facing our industry worldwide.

Thanks to the PMA and the Jay and Ruthie Pack Foundation, the PMA/Pack Family Career Pathways Program has been working since 2004 to expose college students studying food and agriculture to the produce industry.

Managed by PMA’s Foundation for Industry Talent, the Career Pathways program has helped attract more than 256 students to leading produce companies across the supply chain.

But once we attract, can we retain? Let’s be honest, the produce industry isn’t known as a hotbed of technological innovation — but we do offer them the attraction of being a “white hat” place to work, connecting to their desire to make a difference in their world.

The savvy boss will catch up on the technology, which might mean company-supplied tools to connect, apps to computerize routine job functions, and putting into action a new definition of communications, including the use of social media on company time (even during company meetings).

Anything less won’t attract the best and brightest natives, writes Six Pixels of Separation blogger Mitch Joel.

And because workplace disruption is possible when the native and immigrant cultures collide, that might also mean cultural training and team-building exercises to help them understand, work effectively with and respect each other in the workplace. (After all, we can still learn a thing or two from the other.)

Yes, there will be cultural shifts in the workplace, but these natives will be worth the effort since they will be your connection to your new native customer.

Our industry needs to be recruiting and grooming this talent in our companies now, to prepare for the transition that will be needed as our consumer base shifts from immigrants to natives.

How are you preparing to bridge this coming digital divide? Resources can include PMA’s Foundation for Industry Talent.

The foundation’s new Emerging Leaders Program, premiering this June, is designed to help retain and develop that cutting edge new talent our industry needs for the future.

Margi Prueitt is executive director of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association’s Foundation for Industry Talent.

How does your company put to use the skill sets of Gen. Y and Gen. Z? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.