When Nathan Dance returned to his college campus at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore last fall after several semesters of pandemic-induced virtual learning, he had made a tweak to his career ambitions.
The 22-year-old college senior still wanted to become a creative director for a luxury fashion brand and eventually his own label — but there was a footnote: “Now, I want to make an impact … I want to change the world,” he said.
Like thousands of his peers, the pandemic forced Dance, a fashion merchandising major from Norfolk, Virginia, to return home and watch alongside family members as Covid cases rose around the world and the death of George Floyd helped reinvigorate the racial justice movement.
“Covid was my time to really reflect on where the world is … the marches and the Black Lives Matter protests inspired me,” he said. “I really wanted to take what I learned and start putting it into my work. Now I want my work to be representative of my [community].”
Dance, who graduated this month, is among the scores of college students and early career professionals whose ambitions have been fundamentally reframed by the events of the past two years. For those pursuing careers in the fashion industry, a tight labour market, global health crises, and heightened focus on racial equity and climate change have opened new career paths and dramatically altered or closed others.
That rethink includes what fashion-minded graduates want from their future employers. Flexible work schedules and inclusive HR policies are table stakes and companies that haven’t shown they take climate change seriously or don’t have an edge in technology and digital innovation will find themselves working overtime to attract talent.
“These [students] already come with the idea that their opinion really counts and they want a voice at the table,” said Marie Driscoll, managing director of luxury and fashion at Coresight Research and an adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “And I think that retailers and brands — knowing that they’re the next generation of consumers — should have them at the table and listen.”
Compared with prior generations, the current stream of college students and recent graduates are more likely to view job searches and the interview process as a two-way exercise, during which they interrogate prospective employers on everything from flexibility and wellness benefits to a company’s sustainability and diversity efforts, experts say.
Thanks in no small part to social media and the broader proliferation of information globally, Gen-Z, those roughly between the ages of nine and 24 years old, have become fixated on climate change and equality. But for many students, heightened awareness and personal experiences are both driving their ambitions to seek out impactful work.
In 2010, while studying computer science at the Sri Jayachamarajendra College of Engineering in Mysore India, Impana Srikantappa — now an MBA student at Columbia University in New York — partnered with a friend to launch an apparel startup, GoTee Apparel. It was a business borne by chance when Srikantappa designed a t-shirt for herself — featuring cartoon faces known as “rage comics” — that caught the attention of her peers.
Over the course of three years, GoTee sold half a million t-shirts. But by the time she shuttered the business, Srikantappa was deeply concerned about the issues she observed in fashion manufacturing.
“I got to really see the behind the scenes of how the fashion industry works … from the supply chain issues, the pricing and the hubs — like in South India, where some workers would be paid $10 or even less per month,” she said. “I saw how damaging the industry’s [practices] could be to the worker, their family, the people around them.”
Srikantappa now aspires to work as a strategy manager focused on sustainability and community impact for a fashion or beauty brand. She’s already done consulting work for a few small labels in the US but as she eyes her graduation next year, she has a firm set of expectations from brands that may want to court her: a competitive salary (of $200,000 or more); a focus on sustainable and ethical business practices and a flexible model that allows in-person and remote work.
Forward-thinking graduates don’t expect fashion and beauty brands to have all their DEI and sustainability policies buttoned up or all their executives have cracked the code on the latest tech innovation, but they do want to see an effort on the part of companies to prioritise these, said Thomaï Serdari, professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern Business School and Director of the Fashion & Luxury MBA.
“The two areas to highlight are sustainability and DEI initiatives because these are drivers that determine which companies a candidate is going to choose,” she said. “[Still] I think it would be naive to expect companies to have made all these changes — they are tremendous and require real structural shifts with new people in the leadership roles.”
Upcoming graduates, especially those in advanced degree programs should view the current job market — where candidates have an edge over their employers and job openings far outpace available workers — as a signal that the industry will be more apt to embrace new ideas, she said.
Most college students still take traditional routes to employment in fashion, including internships and plenty of networking. Apprenticeships and programs aimed at recent graduates have always been important in helping students solidify their career goals, and such programs have become more valuable to fashion firms by fortifying their connections with the next generation of talent in a tight labour market.
Maggie Shanus graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2021 with a degree in International Relations and a minor in consumer psychology. During her senior year, Shanus — whose dream job is a beauty brand chief marketing officer or creative director — used the college’s QuakerNet, a database of resources for students that includes contact information for notable alumni, to find email addresses for executives and recruiters at major fashion and beauty brands.
Dozens of cold emails and several applications led to an internship at The Estée Lauder Companies that helped her secure a spot as a “global president associate” at the beauty conglomerate when she graduated last May. Estée Lauder’s CEO Global Presidential Program is a paid opportunity offered to a group of about 75 recent graduates from around the world annually. Participants rotate through various roles across the business in areas like marketing and content creation. After 18 to 24 months, many of them end up in a permanent role in the business, Estee Lauder said.
“What I love about the company and this specific program, is the fact that they are really focused on developing young talent, they’re focused on ‘what are my long term career goals?’” said Shanus. “A couple weeks ago, we had a fireside chat with [executive chairman] William Lauder and we’ve had chats with brand presidents and I met with people from research and design and from different [global] markets.”
An internship at a popular sneaker brand and another at a big luxury label helped Gracen Fling, a senior at Clark Atlanta University, become clearer on her ambition to someday own her own fashion label specialising in stylish suits for Black women. She’s also gotten realistic about the fact that she may need to pursue an entry-level job as a “trend forecaster” in order to get the ball rolling.
Like Dance, who says he’s narrowed down his entry-level job prospects to companies that prioritise inclusion and have high levels of minority representation, the pandemic and social justice protests helped Fling — who will begin an internship focused on design apparel innovation with denim-maker Levis this summer — determine the types of companies that would give her the best experience.
“I care about the [cachet] of the company that I’m working with because the name has history and is packed, but that doesn’t make the overall experience to me,” she said. “I want to see what the company is doing to better the lives of Black people or just other people who are marginalised.”
Employers in the US plan to hire 26.6 percent more new graduates from the class of 2022 than they did from the prior year’s cohort, a November report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found. Upcoming graduates will enter a market with 11 million job openings — nearly double the number of job seekers, according to the latest data from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics.
“I don’t know what tomorrow may hold — or next week, or the next couple of years. All I know is that the ball is in my court,” said Dance. “I have an opinion, I have a set of skills, all I need is a platform.”