READ TIME: 5 minutes.

For decades, colleges and universities have recognized the special challenges faced by first-generation students – those whose parents did not earn a college degree. There are programs that welcome those students to campus early, offer structured studying and academic support resources, and host social networking events for first-gen students.

Much more recently, employers are starting to recognize the unique challenges faced by their first-generation professionals – and the benefits of providing a workplace where they can thrive. Who are the first-gen professionals? Why are employers tuning in now? What can you do to attract, develop, and retain first-gen professionals at your organization?

Who are the first-generation professionals?

Many first-generation professionals were first-generation college students. But it’s more than that. Harvard Business Review defines first-generation professionals – or “FGPs” or “class migrants” – as “those who move from working-class roots to white-collar careers.” The Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Commerce uses this definition: “Those who are one of the first in their immediate families to enter the professional workforce, i.e., their parents held traditional blue-collar or working-class positions that did not require a college degree.”

Whatever the definition, first-gen professionals often lack the benefit of having professional parents,  immediate family members, or others who would expose them to professional norms and networks. Such lack of capital – economic and cultural – can hamper their ability to successfully navigate a college education and/or professional workplace experience.

Some of the most common challenges include:

  • Academic Network. When parents or close family members complete a college degree, they acquire a network of people and resources who can guide them – and the next generation. For individuals whose parents did not finish college – or whose parents earned college degrees in another country – it can be difficult to make wise, informed decisions when it comes to college choice, degree choice, college financing, academic program, internships … and all the other decisions and tools that come with the higher education experience.
  • Language. Especially for individuals who were born in another country – or whose parents were born in another country – navigating the written and unwritten rules of English-dominant schools and workplaces is much more difficult in a new language.
  • Business Culture. Even for those born in the U.S., the professional “language” is foreign for those whose immediate community is not familiar with a professional setting. Learning to speak the nuanced “customer service” or “leadership” or “board room” language is an uphill battle.
  • Professional Network. Children whose parents work in professional settings will often visit their parents at work. They have access to their parents’ network of professional contacts who can guide the parents and/or children through career and life decisions. Professional contacts frequently open doors to help others in their career journeys. Without that network, it can be a trial-and-error process to figure out how to succeed in the professional world and to build one’s professional network from square one.
  • Finances. While there is limited research on first-generation professionals, the average parental income of dependent first-generation college students is $41,000, compared with $90,000 for continuing-generation students. With less disposable income, first-gen students were more likely to work and to be burdened with student loans and had less money for social events and activities.
  • Resiliency. It takes tremendous perseverance and resiliency to close career gaps when there’s no built-in social, economic, and cultural network to guide the decisions.

Against that backdrop, take a moment to appreciate who these individuals become when they succeed in the workplace. The DOC’s Office of Civil Rights points out that, “First Generation Professionals are smart, innovative, resilient, and motivated – the kind of people who make great leaders.”

Why are employers focusing on first-gen professionals now?

Finally, employers are starting to take a closer look at first-generation professionals: what they bring to the table, what’s working when they thrive, and what’s getting in their way.

Why now? There are many reasons. Here are just a few:

  • DEI Initiatives: Diversity, equity, and inclusion programs have popped up across the country inside workplaces. Leaders are appreciating the value of a diverse workforce, actively examining their companies’ policies and practices, and learning what works best to attract and retain a diverse workforce. They’re asking, “What’s getting in the way of equity and inclusion at work?” They’re refreshing company policies and practices to build a company culture that celebrates diversity, equity, and inclusion. As “class migrants,” first-gen professionals are starting to be recognized as an under-valued group that brings a set of perspectives, challenges, and strengths that can enrich an astute employer.
  • Great Resignation: Or the Great Migration. A wave of employees leaving their jobs has prompted many employers to think differently about what they stand for as a company and how to retain the employees they have – some of whom may be first-gen professionals.
  • Reassessment of College Degrees: Increasingly, employers are revisiting their college degree requirements for professional jobs. Many are dropping the need for degrees for a range of jobs where the company believes that the company itself – or an alternate path – can provide the skills and experiences an employee needs to succeed. This move means that some who would have been first-generation college students may become first-generation professionals without the benefit of the college programs designed to help first-gen students succeed. Employers, then, will need to provide some of that support to help ensure success at work.

How to attract and retain your first-gen professionals

Welcoming first-generation professionals at your workplace starts well before individuals are hired and lasts beyond their final day of employment. As one study summed it up, “The extent to which an employee fits in and achieves success within an organization depends largely on how their resources, connections (relationships), and hidden rules mesh with the resources, connections, and hidden rules of the organization.” How well your organization does that for every employee will define your culture and your reputation.

Include these steps in your DEI efforts to create a place where first-gen professionals thrive:

  • Start by understanding the first-gen professional career journey. All leaders should participate in awareness training to learn the stories and obstacles of first-gen professionals. Only then can your team reduce barriers and scale up successes to unleash their many assets. The U.S. Department of Commerce is one organization that took this step seriously, with their First Generation Professionals Summit to spark a facilitated conversation across the organization.
  • Make inclusive communication a core competency for everyone. This is a recommendation from the First Gen Talent featured in the Harvard Business Review article referenced above. Make a point to minimize corporate jargon and to speak in a way that allows everyone, regardless of their background, to contribute. Task leaders to model inclusive communications and reinforce behaviors that encourage a diversity of perspectives to be heard. Offer training and coaching opportunities for employees and managers to learn and practice how to avoid class-based language. Research authors suggest this practical tip, “If your company or industry uses nuanced language or specialized vocabulary, create an internal wiki or glossary of terms with definitions, examples, and visuals to help ensure common understanding of language and terms.”
  • Review and refresh your competency management programs. Ensure that your employee and leadership competencies are current and inclusive. Then, work to root out unwanted bias in hiring and career progression decisions with competency-based job descriptions and  performance management programs that are closely tied to skills and competencies.
  • Facilitate inclusive new-employee orientations: Orient new employees to your workplace culture. Include some of the “unwritten rules” such as how to dress for success, business etiquette, the most effective ways to speak up and be heard, and where to go with questions that are not specific to the job.
  • Build or strengthen your employee resource groups. First Gen Talent research found that, compared to non-FGPs, twice as many first-gen professionals found employee resource groups or other community groups important to their success in their first professional jobs. Build or strengthen your groups. Then, use formal and informal communications channels to get the word out about groups and programs – and to solicit feedback to shape future activities.
  • Assign mentors to every new first-gen employee. Look for people who will provide encouragement, support, and practical advice – someone who can and will recognize employees’ capabilities, help to grow that person’s responsibilities, and teach them how to succeed. Then once they become established in their careers, encourage first-gen professionals to mentor others, too.


Are you ready to welcome and retain first-generation professional employees? Download our Competency Management Toolkit for some tips to get you started. Or contact us to find out how Avilar’s team and WebMentor Skills™ may be able to help.



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