Traditionally, most companies have reserved their internship slots for college juniors and seniors. And the reasoning makes sense: upperclassmen have locked in their majors, completed classes related to their chosen fields, and theoretically have more work experience.

But the 2019 Yello Recruiting Study finds that while targeting upperclassmen may have worked in previous generations, Gen Z job seekers are prime internship candidates as early as freshman or sophomore year. With increased ambition, a drive to make an impact, and a desire to build meaningful relationships, recruiting freshman Gen Zers is not only good for your business, but could be an opportunity to snag top talent early — before your competition does.

Here’s why hiring freshmen students as interns might be your next big recruiting move:

Why Should You Offer Internships to Freshmen and Sophomores?

For a long time, reserving internships for upperclassmen has sufficiently met employers’ needs. So why upset the apple cart now?

1. Gen Z is smart.

The Pew Research Center says Generation Z may be the most diverse and smartest generation ever. With a bottle in one hand and a mobile device in the other, Generation Z didn’t have to transition to technology — they grew up with it. If they had a question, they Googled it. If they wanted to learn how to do something, they found instructions on YouTube. If they were struggling with schoolwork, free online courses provided clarity.

While companies were educating employees on how to work collaboratively and globally and leverage diversity, Gen Zers were connecting with peers from around the world on gaming platforms and building social networks starting in grammar school.

Chart showing how many recruiters hire freshman interns versus upperclassmen

*Source: Twitter poll, July 2019

In large part, this has shaped Gen Z’s confidence, values and capabilities, and enhanced what they have to offer employers, even as college freshmen.

2. Gen Z is motivated.

Unlike their millennial predecessors who focused on career progress and the “what’s in it for me,” the Yello 2019 Recruiting Study found that Gen Zers are more interested in having the opportunity to perform meaningful work that makes a difference — this may prove to be a competitive advantage for employers looking to address skill gaps in a tight labor market.

3. Gen Z is starting the job search when they are freshmen and sophomores.

One in five college students begin looking for work the same year they enter college; that jumps to one in four by sophomore year. Employers that wait until students are upperclassmen to offer internships may find they have a significantly smaller pool of candidates.

4. Gen Zers value relationships.

They rank the relationship they have with a recruiter as the most important factor in the hiring experience, and they trust what they read on job review sites and from peers they know.  Companies that begin making connections and building relationships with freshmen will have an advantage over companies that don’t.

How to Attract More Gen Z Talent With a Successful Internship Program

Expand your internship program to college freshmen and sophomores.

This gives you access to the largest pool of candidates, which is especially important if you have talent gaps in fields that fewer students are pursuing – like business.

Give interns real work.

Gen Zers may very well be your dream come true – they  want to do real work and deliver real value. Capitalize on this by redefining intern job responsibilities. Consult with hiring managers to replace busy work with meaningful projects.

Establish and maintain strong relationships.

Make sure recruiters have the bandwidth to connect with Gen Zers, and keep communications flowing from the first meeting at a campus recruiting event, through the internship period and when a student is hired as a full-time employee. Invest in talent communities tailored to interns and underclassmen.

Turn current interns into employee referral machines.

The students you hire — and even the ones you don’t — are sitting on a potential goldmine of referral candidates. Engage interns and full-time hires to promote your company to other students.

Ensure your employment brand is authentic.

Have no doubt – Gen Zers will reach out to current and former employers to validate your company culture, so make sure your employment brand accurately reflects employees’ experiences on-the-job.

Employ top-notch hiring technology and practices.

More than 50% of Gen Z says they’re likely to bypass a potential employer due to outdated hiring technology. Don’t lose candidates simply because your online application is glitchy or your hiring process is slow. Make a positive first impression with modern talent acquisition solutions.

Give interns the option to work from home.

There’s much debate about whether you should let interns work from home. But there’s a compelling reason why you should: if you go on to make them a full-time job offer, they’ll already know you’re a proponent of work-life balance — the second biggest factor Gen Z considers when accepting a job.