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Internal Culture: Attracting young talent through workplace culture

American Traffic Safety Services Association – Save the Associations Vol. 3

The American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA), located in Virginia, is looked to as a national industry leader because of their cutting edge efforts. While the association itself was not seeing a membership decline, they did notice a workforce shortage trend among their members.

“Our association was not seeing a decline in membership, but members were coming to us with workforce issues,” shared Jessica Scheyder, Director of Training at ATSSA.

Instead of telling their members how to appeal to the younger generations, ATSSA decided to make changes at the association so they could show members how to create a culture that attracts young professionals.

A New Internal Culture

To help create this new culture, ATSSA tasked new talent and current employees to collaboratively examine the workplace culture and identify ways to improve it. They considered everything from desk space to company-wide communication.

The result of this hard work is astounding. Today when you listen to ATSSA employees describe their workplace, you would think they are describing a Silicon Valley start-up versus an association founded in 1966.  Here are just a few of the improvements made at ATSSA:

  • Team Communication: New communication tools have been added to foster a collaborative work environment
  • Workspace Expansion: Employees can now choose to work at their desk, treadmill desks, or at any of the new community lounges
  • Extracurricular Activities: New clubs and teams have been created by employees to help build relationships and keep work fun

“Employees who have worked at ATSSA for years have said it feels like a completely new workplace,” said Scheyder.

A New Recruitment Tactic

This new culture has had an unexpected effect on recruitment. Association leaders had hoped the changes would lead to attracting the younger generations, which it has, but it also led to a wider talent pool overall. ATSSA used to focus only on looking locally for talent, but the flexibility the association gained with the culture changes has allowed them to recruit talent from farther away.

They have seen an increase in new hires from Washington D.C., northern Virginia, and the Richmond area. Employees are willing to commute because of ATSSA’s desirable culture, benefits, and compensation package. One benefit of particular appeal is ATSSA’s telecommute policy. After an onboarding period, many positions can telecommute part-time, and the association continually evaluates telecommuting options as technology and communication platforms allow.

Continued Feedback

The early culture shift successes made it an easy decision for ATSSA leadership to make these changes permanent. The association now has dedicated teams and resources to ensure the positivity continues.

Every year the association sends out an employee culture survey and all raw data is shared with employees. Culture improvements continue to evolve as a result of survey findings. One notable change is the new “dress for your day” dress code. Knowing the association is truly listening to its employees has cultivated a positive culture at ATSSA. “It also spurred a sense of ownership,” added Scheyder.

The Advice

ATSSA’s advice for other associations is simple – just do it! It seems scary to change culture and there will be many challenges along the way, but the positive changes are worth it. Listening to and empowering employees to foster a positive workplace culture reaps many rewards.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

XYZ University - Save the Associations Blog Series

All summer long XYZ University will be sharing inspiring stories of associations that are doing something exceptional to 'save' their association and their industry from an untimely demise. XYZ U exists to help organizations engage younger generations of members, talent, and marketshare. We offer unparalleled generational expertise, coupled with an in-depth knowledge of future economic, membership, and marketing trends, to advise clients on the best strategies for long-term growth, relevance, and market engagement.

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