Last week I was at the Niagara Economic Summit where they tackled a number of issues related to employment in the Niagara Region including a power talk on the topic of millennials. The millennial discussion was led by a panel of largely millennial speakers including Chris Sinclair, Julie Rorison, Allie Hughes, Alyssa Lai, Stephanie Harper, and Stephen Murdoch. In the discussion the panelist spoke about the way millennials differ from previous generations in their work styles, their own experiences as employees and employers, and some strategies for other millennials to getting themselves started in the work force.
Having recently been doing some work supporting the start-up of a non-profit focused specifically on helping millennials make the leap from student to productive professional I’ve been doing some research on the topic myself and I found the discussion at the Summit very interesting. It is one thing to read survey data from big corporations and newspapers and to talk to professionals about their perspectives on the millennial generation, but it is something else entirely to hear an intelligent panel of millennial speakers share their own personal experiences.
Chris Sinclair is VP and co-founder of Niagara marketing company Brand Blvd. His staff are largely millennials and he noted some key differences between millennials and previous generations in the work place:
- Millennials prefer experiences over things
- Millennials desire flexibility over rigidity
- Millennials prefer autonomy over micro-managing
- Millennials believe in work-life integration rather than work-life balance
- Millennials prefer on the spot feedback to formal annual reviews
- Millennials align themselves to community over individual needs
While this information was informally collected in discussions with his own staff the panel of millennials all echoed those same key differences in their own experiences both as employees and employers.
The reality is that the millennial generation faces significantly different challenges to previous generations, so it should be no surprise that they have differences in the way they approach the work environment (and life in general). The formal statistics lay it out pretty clearly – the world has changed and millennials are facing challenges that haven’t been seen previously.
- Of the graduating students who haven’t had their education paid for the average Canadian graduating millennial leaves school with $27,000 in debt
- The cost of housing (buying or renting) has skyrocketed in recent years resulting in 38% of millennials continuing to live at home with their parents
- There are less employment opportunities available as companies focus on productivity through automation and offshoring of work causing an almost 10% drop in employment rate for recent graduates over the last 10 years
So what does it all mean for millennials? What does it mean for employers? How does everyone deal with the “Millennial Challenge”?
You are faced with a new set of challenges but that doesn’t mean that it is “harder” for you to get started in life. In fact in many ways these challenges give you some interesting opportunities that previous generations didn’t take good advantage of.
Travel and Experience the World
The first point of difference noted in Chris’ speech was the desire for experiences over things and I have seen and heard the same thing from many of the millennials I have worked with or know. So then if the preference is for experiences then maybe the skyrocketing price of housing isn’t as big a challenge as it is being made out to be… after all a house is just a thing right? Maybe the fact that you can’t start out life on the same “responsible” path that your parents did is a good thing.
One of the key differentiators I found in hiring people into my teams has always been their exposure and experience in different areas of the world. It was somewhat less important that the experience was in the same industry or role that I was hiring, but more important that they had exposure to different ways of life, different cultural norms, different product and service landscapes, and different ways of thinking.
So what if rather than spending your first few years after school holed up in your parents’ basement working an entry level job while trying to balance paying off your student debt with saving for a new house if you looked for opportunities to go work somewhere else in the world? Maybe some time near a nice beach working in the hospitality industry of Costa Rica? Learning the banking industry as a junior analyst in Bermuda? Perhaps there is an opportunity to expand your computer experience working in an off-shore development team in India while experiencing the culture and history of the country?
If you haven’t yet started your post-secondary school perhaps you should consider travel in your education plans as well. There are several resources that can help you plan to study abroad and there are scholarship programs and other bursaries available to Canadian students studying outside of Canada. In many cases the education you get is also subsidized by the company you are visiting so the costs are actually less to study abroad than to go to the university up the road from your house.
International experience can drastically improve your chances at employment when you do start your career, so take advantage of the fact that you can’t afford a house today anyway and get out and experience the world.
Build Your Network
You have grown up in the age of social networking with a seemingly unending list of ways that you can “stay connected” to people you know. The average millennial Facebook user has 696 friends so clearly making “connections” to people has never been a challenge to your generation. The act of connecting to people is a natural act for the millennial generation, but the trick you need to learn is how to translate that same activity off-line and to a broader group of people.
Look for MeetUps in your area for people who have similar career aspirations or experience to what you are looking for. Look for networking events at your school or in your local area where you can meet professionals and business owners who might eventually be interested in hiring you. Get out to where the people who already work in your industry congregate. Then meet them.
Print simple business cards with your contact information on it so you can make personal connections when you are out and bring them with you everywhere. Look for every opportunity to engage in conversations with the people you want to get to know and bring a curious attitude to every conversation. People universally like to talk about themselves and their own achievements and your genuine interest in them, their industry and their company will be much more memorable to them than you rhyming off an elevator pitch about your own unique value proposition.
Most importantly be sure to follow up. If you exchange cards with people at a networking event be sure to send a thank you email within a couple of days to reinforce your name with them. Including a couple of personal items in your follow up that relate directly to the conversation you had with them is also a great way to show them you were interested and listening. (BTW if you want to improve your networking game get and read Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi)
Find a Mentor
Your own network takes time to build so how do you jump start your reach into the professional circles? Find yourself a professional mentor who already has their own professional network built and who is willing to help you to achieve your goals. There are thousands of people like me who are willing to spend time with younger people who are just starting out to share our own experiences and learnings to help you get a head start in your career and life. Not taking advantage of the incredible mentor resource pool is a critical mistake when you are getting started.
You can find mentors at the networking events you attend or you can do some more proactive searching on LinkedIn or other professional sites to find someone who you think have the right mix of experience and interests that align with your own goals. Then try to get an introduction to those people through your own network. If you really can’t find a connection to your target mentor then you can also attempt a cold-call or direct connection with them, but you may find less success with that approach.
While I recognize that the millennial generation desires flexibility and work-life integration in their work environment (as do I) the reality is that you’re going to have to earn that part. You need to show some flexibility out of the gate to take on a work environment that may be less flexible and more 9-to-5 than you would like in order to ultimately get the flexibility you desire. Even at Brand Blvd with a completely millennial workforce they have a very rigid block of time dedicated to outbound sales calling that everyone has to participate in. As you prove your abilities to generate new and repeat business you begin to get more flexibility in work hours and work location, but when you start out you will follow the process they have developed which will give you the support and experience to be successful.
Stop it with the “Millennial Workspaces”
Just because Google and Twitter have had success with unassigned seating and dynamic flowing workspaces doesn’t mean that you will too. Just taking away desk assignments and moving your real estate strategy to a more flexible approach doesn’t mean that your company actually supports the flexibility those spaces afford. If your culture still demands that people work face-to-face the majority of the time or penalizes people who take advantage of the flexible work spaces then your initiative will never get the desired results and you are just creating disruption rather than attracting millennials.
Ease up on the annual reviews
While I recognize that it will be a long time for many companies to actually do away with the antiquated annual review system you can adjust your approach and get better results. Rather than leaving feedback to the formal reviews encourage your leaders to make it an every day task. Feedback should be in the moment, immediate, and ongoing if you want to attract millennial workers. If you do continue to have a formal annual review process it becomes more of a formality rather than a chance to have new conversations since all of the performance related issues are always open for discussion.
This one is tough because there are lots of cultural legacies that don’t change quickly (see Millennial Workspaces above) but it is definitely something you want to start changing sooner than later. Start by actively encouraging different work approaches yourself – different meeting structures, more remote opportunities, online collaboration tools like Slack, more flexible start and end times to a day.
You will have to lead by example and ensure that good employees that start to buy into the new work methods aren’t penalized, but ultimately even little steps can start to drastically change the way your business works. More flexibility = more attractive to high performing millennials so the prize is huge if you can get it right.
Think about alternative compensation
Your millennial workforce desires experiences over things, so think more carefully about how you are building your compensation plans. Think about vacations, conference opportunities, off-site workshops, education, and other non-financial ways to attract and retain your top millennial talent. Many of the folks I have had work for me have certainly been significantly more thankful to me for extending their work trip to include a weekend in Chicago or a conference trip to London than they have for a raise that cost me significantly more money. Get creative with compensation and you will be amazed at the reaction from millennial employees.
The “Millennial Challenge” Isn’t Impossible
Ultimately I don’t think the challenges faced by millennials today or by the employers who are trying to understand them is an insurmountable task. I don’t believe the challenges on either side are any harder than any of the generations that have come before, but they certainly are different. Hopefully some of the strategies I’ve shared above are helpful to both sides, and I will continue to evolve my thinking as I continue to work with graduating students and the non-profit that I’m currently supporting.
I think the single biggest solution to the Millennial Challenge is to have a healthy and ongoing conversation, so if these thoughts do nothing but help prompt that conversation then I’ve had the desired effect.
Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.