Despite a popular talking point, teenagers are motivated – it just might look a little different from what motivates you.

A recent session from the Business, Entrepreneurship & Economic Development Team at Penn State Extension unpacked this idea: teenage workers are a crucial part of seasonal farm work and agritourism – how do we engage with the business model on their level?

Creating a work environment that keeps their motivations centered, prioritizes learning and professional development and that values them as professionals through solid feedback communication can help you manage and sustain a strong seasonal staff.

Today’s workforce spans five generations, featuring more age diversity than ever before. Though often an asset, these age disparities can lead to misunderstandings. This can be illustrated in the multi-generational farm model and the divide of operational preference. Understanding these differences – what “works” for each age group – is crucial in fostering effective collaboration and communication in the workplace. Gen Z is no exception.

Who are “Generation Z”? They are the “young people” of today, typically ages 12 – 27. They value more flexible employment versus the more traditional environments older peers might be used to.

Some contextual reminders provide background: “Gen Z was born into a world where the internet was thriving. They have never experienced the world without the internet. Most have never used a cordless phone. For them, most problem solving begins with a Google search.”

In their approach to work, they “prefer individual tasks over team-based activity, enjoying independence but not isolation.” Gen Z values salary less than any previous generation, instead prioritizing the fulfillment provided by a variety of engaging work opportunities.

What motivates Gen Z? Sharing some data from Deloitte, the session presenters discussed the spectrum. Reflecting their sense of individuality, motivators like customer satisfaction (14%) and team success (34%) scored low (though these concepts can be fostered within your team). Scoring higher were motivators like building relationships (44%), opportunities for growth (51%) and engaging work (44%).

As the owner-manager, you set the bar when it comes to keeping your team motivated. One presenter brought up the idea of an “I do/we do/you do” approach. “Seeing your level of hustle and efficiency can help teenagers understand the energy needed for the job and to know how much time a task should take,” they said.

Communication is key when setting that bar of expectation. Gen Z gravitates toward digital communications, often more comfortable texting than navigating a phone call. Scheduling shifts and communicating after hours should mostly be done via texting.

Some operations utilize scheduling applications – they can produce better attendance and organization from your teen employees and they can simplify the process for you as a manager-owner. Apps like Connecteam were noted as some free scheduler options.

There are also resources like a shared Google calendar that can be useful. When in doubt, make sure to have a parent or guardian’s cell phone number accessible for backup.

Consistent in-person communication is important as well. Explain tasks logically and briefly. Over-communicating can lead them to tune out. Outline expectations clearly. Teens need support when it comes to gauging expectations. They may not have a reference point for what a satisfactory job looks like and will require greater initial direction and feedback. Though their agency is increasing with age, most will still lack experienced problem-solving without the immediate interaction of an adult.

Equip your teen employees with the “why” behind your processes: “We display the produce this way because it entices more sales.” “We clean the machine this way to prevent bacterial growth.” Don’t assume they know your rules or reasoning.

For process reminders, a bulleted or numbered list is helpful in the workspace: “Don’t forget steps 1 – 5 when closing the store.” You also can’t assume they’ll find more work to do if one task is finished.

More than likely, you’re dealing with diverse backgrounds. Those from more rural backgrounds are likely to be self-starters. Others might not have a lot of expectations placed on them outside of work. This may be the first context without their parents available to step up and assist them. A “task board” (a chalkboard or whiteboard) can be helpful to promote accountability and to help your teens learn the routines of your business.

You can’t assume they know the appropriate attitudes or presentations for customer service. Modeling and coaching what that looks like (a smile and a pleasant attitude, seeing to the customer’s purchase needs, etc.) is instrumental. Appropriate training is important, but they are going to learn from your model throughout the season.

Feedback is important during a time of rapid change and development. Your teenaged employees are learning new skills all the time. Starting from day one, set a standard for timely feedback to encourage improvement. Ask if the work is what they expected. Have them rate their performance. Starting this process immediately helps set that curve of expectation.

One approach to feedback is the “3-3-3 approach.” In the first three hours, strive to know something unique about that individual and share it with them. Within three days, give specific feedback on what they have done well. Within three months, give them a meaningful task and see how they handle that additional responsibility.

Routine feedback will keep your entire staff motivated, not just your teens. Don’t underestimate the value of rewards and friendly competition as well. Even small milestones can go a long way.

It’s easy to focus on common challenges with teenage employees, but there can be solutions. They tend to have limited agency over their schedule and availability. Employers often combat this by having them submit things like sports schedules and special event calendars in effort to be as prepared as possible.

Teens use their phones for virtually everything – and phone use on work time can be a temptation. Clarity around your business’s phone policy can be helpful, be that signage or a conversation, with firm boundaries and consequences for breaking the phone policy.

Teenage employees may be afraid of disappointing you and will hide mistakes. Fostering open dialogue is critical to helping them be successful and navigating any challenges.

Remember that teenage employees bring a lot of strengths to the table as well. They are less burdened with life commitments. They tend to thrive around others in their age group. They learn new skills incredibly fast.

The younger members of Gen Z can be a unique but invaluable addition for your business operation – and ensuring a good experience for their first job creates loyalty. Teens with good work experiences will come back to work for you – and they will tell their friends. The skills they develop at your farm will impact their careers for years to come.

by Andy Haman