Recent college grads: They’re not so bad at work

June 7, 2012, 3:37 PM UTC

FORTUNE — As waves of new college graduates flood into work­places, you may be bracing yourself for an onslaught of entitled youngsters who expect to be hand-held during training. After all, Millennials are the only generation that doesn’t list “work ethic” as a defining trait, according to the Pew Research Center. Indeed, 75% of those Pew polled said that older people have a stronger work ethic than young adults.

But take heart, managers of America. Employers that regularly hire workers in their early 20s find them to be just as diligent and competent as previous generations. This year’s crop of graduates, after all, entered college just as the worst recession since the 1930s took hold, so they’re likely grateful simply to have a job — and willing to work hard to keep it. Keep an open mind, and you may find that this year’s recent grads defy the well-worn stereotype that Gen-Y’ers are all ambition and little else. In fact, these new arrivals can contribute plenty to your workplace.

“They’re very earnest and nervous when they start,” says Joy Adams, a program specialist at Navistar, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of diesel trucks and engines, based in Lisle, Ill. “They know these older generations are holding on to their jobs longer, so they recognize that rapid moving up isn’t as likely. They are certainly grateful.”

The job market for recent grads is improving, as companies plan to take on 10.2% more college graduates this year than last year, according to a survey of National Association of Colleges and Employers members. Recent grads “bring creativity, enthusiasm and fresh perspectives — something needed by all companies to stay competitive,” says Marie Artim, president of the association and vice president of talent acquisition for Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

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Navistar hires about 20 fresh college graduates every year for a 24-month leadership development program that allows them to rotate through three or four different areas of the company. Not only does the program give new employees exposure to different groups where they might find full-time roles, it also provides a gentle transition from the semester-based academic life, with a fresh start every 12 weeks or so.

“I tell them that every job you take is just a long interview and it will be that way for the rest of your life. Every day you come in and deliver, you are proving yourself and that’s what will make you successful,”Adams says.

Take Rachel Frazelle, 24, a 2010 graduate of Illinois State University with a degree in finance, insurance and Spanish, who rotated into a position that involved tracking the company’s inventory of trucks. She realized that by establishing some naming conventions in the computer system and consistently entering repair information, Navistar could increase efficiency and sell more trucks. “It was getting more trucks out the door faster by knowing which parts are needed on the truck, where those parts were. You could see who ordered them and where the truck was in our lot,” Frazelle says.

Frazelle and a co-worker so appreciated the contact with others throughout the company that they got through their rotation program that they approached management about institutionalizing the informal networking through a young professionals group. In February, the group kicked off with a networking evening, and has continued with kickball games as well as more formal events.

Enterprise Rent-a-Car hires heavily from the ranks of new college graduates to join its management-training program, Artim says. “In many cases, it’s the first time these men and women are experiencing an active workplace environment,” says Artim. The company’s senior leadership team, including the chairman and COO, all started out in entry-level positions.

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For instance, James Davis, a Millennial hired at Enterprise as a training and development specialist in southern California, noticed concerns that the training programs were not as consistent as they could have been. He put together a 60-day new hire survey letting new hires give feedback on how their training compares with what was promised. They added a formal mentoring program into the mix. Since then, new hire retention has increased about 3 or 4% and retention of assistant managers has climbed about 9% increase, according to Artim.

“They’re willing to work hard if they feel there’s a reason for it,” Artim says. “Relationship building and personalizing are very much part of today’s grad, and that’s important to them.”

Coyote Logistics, a Chicago-based logistics company, grew from just three individuals to over 1,000 in under six years, which has given the firm extensive experience turning recent college graduates into employees. The firm currently is adding 15 new hires every two weeks. The key to bringing new employees into the fold is in helping them see the sense of purpose and idealism at work that is so important to Generation Y, says Marianne Silver, chief human resource officer and co-founder of Coyote.

Recently, Coyote asked recent grad employees to help the City College system in Chicago revamp its college-to-career program. More than 350 employees volunteered, 80 of them in the first hour after the request went out.

“They love the concept of being able to shape not only their future, but the future of the company. They’re genuine in their belief that they can do it and they can make a difference,” Silver says. “They defy the stereotype.”