The Millennial Challenge - A Power Talk at the Niagara Economic SummitLast week I was at the Niagara Economic Summit where they tackled some 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 millennial speakers including Chris Sinclair, Julie Rorison, Allie Hughes, Alyssa Lai, Stephanie Harper, and Stephen Murdoch. In the discussion, the panellists spoke about the way Millennials differ from previous generations. I call this the Millennial Challenge. Gen Y differs in their work styles and their experiences and perceptions of employees and employers. The panellists also shared some strategies for other millennials to get themselves started in the work force.

I have recently been doing some work supporting the start-up of a non-profit focused on helping millennials make the leap from student to productive professional. I found the discussion at the Summit fascinating given some research I’ve been doing in that work. It is one thing to read professional research and perspectives on the millennial generation, but it was enlightening to hear an intelligent panel of millennial speakers share their own experiences.

Real World Observations of the Millennial Challenge

Chris Sinclair is VP and co-founder of Niagara marketing company Brand Blvd. His staff are largely millennials, and he noted some fundamental 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 he collected these insights informally through his staff, the panel of millennials echoed them. Each panellist noted the same differences in their own experiences both as employees and employers.

The Challenge is Different Than Previous Generations

The reality is that the millennial generation faces significantly different challenges to previous generations. 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 clearly. The world has changed, and millennials are facing entirely new challenges.

  • 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 fewer 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 ten years

So what does it all mean for millennials? What does it mean for employers? How does everyone deal with the “Millennial Challenge”?

For Millennials

You face new 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 enjoy.

Travel and Experience the World

The difference noted in Chris’ speech was the desire for experiences over things. I have seen and heard the same thing from many of the millennials I have worked with or know. So 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 hiring people has been their exposure to different areas of the world. It is less important to me that the experience was in the same industry or role that I am hiring than that they have exposure to various ways of life, different cultural norms, different product and service landscapes, and different modes of thinking.

Consider Working Abroad

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 beautiful beach working in the hospitality industry of Costa Rica? Learning the banking sector 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. Wherever you look there is a chance to experience the culture and history of another country?

Consider Studying Abroad

If you haven’t yet started post-secondary education, you should consider travel in your plans. There are several resources that can help you plan your study abroad. There are also scholarship programs and other bursaries available to Canadian students studying outside of Canada. In many cases, the education you get can also get subsidies from the country you are visiting. You may find the costs are less to study abroad than to go to the University near your house.

International experience can drastically improve your chances at employment when you do start your career. Take advantage of the fact that you can’t afford a house today 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. 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. The trick is how to translate that same activity offline and to a broader group of people.

Look for MeetUps in your area for people who have similar career aspirations or experience. Look for networking events in your local area where you can meet professionals 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 and bring them with you everywhere. Look for every opportunity to engage in conversations with people you want to get to know. Most importantly bring a curious attitude to every conversation. People universally like to talk about themselves and their achievements. Your genuine interest in them, their industry and their company will be much more memorable to them than your elevator pitch about your unique value proposition.

Most importantly be sure to follow up. When you exchange cards with someone at a networking event make sure you send a thank you email within a couple of days. Include a couple of items related to the conversation you had 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 network takes time to build, so how do you jump start your reach into the professional circles? Find a professional mentor who already has a professional network 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 people who are starting out. I am always happy to share 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. You can also do proactive searching on LinkedIn find someone whom you think has the right mix of experience and interests aligned with your goals. Try to get an introduction to those people through your network. If you can’t find a connection to your target mentor, then attempt a cold-call or direct link with them. Warm introductions are always better, but grit and determination can also win.

Be Flexible

While I recognize that the millennial generation desires flexibility and work-life integration in their work environment, the reality is that you’re going to have to earn that part. You need to show some flexibility when you start to take on a work environment that may be less flexible and more 9-to-5. Over time you can earn the flexibility you desire. Even at Brand Blvd, they have a rigid block of time dedicated to outbound sales calling. As employees prove their abilities to generate new and repeat business, they begin to get more flexibility in work hours and work location. When they start out they all follow the process designed to provide support and get the experience to be successful.

For Employers

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. Taking away desk assignments and moving to flexible seating doesn’t mean that your company supports the flexibility. If your culture demands that people work face-to-face the majority of the time or penalizes individuals who take advantage of the flexible work spaces, then you won’t be successful. Ultimately you are just creating disruption rather than attracting millennials.

Ease up on the annual reviews

It will be a long time until many companies do away with the antiquated annual review system. However, you can adjust your approach and get better results. Rather than leaving feedback to formal reviews, encourage your leaders to make it an everyday task. Feedback should be in the moment, immediate, and ongoing to attract millennial workers. If you do continue to have a formal annual review process, it should be more of a formality rather than a chance to have new conversations. With ongoing feedback, performance related issues are always open for discussion.

Integrate Flexibility

This one is tough because there are lots of cultural legacies that don’t change quickly (see Millennial Workspaces above). It is definitely something you want to start changing sooner than later. Start by actively encouraging different work approaches yourself. Try different meeting structures, more remote opportunities, use of online collaboration tools like Slack, and more flexible start and end times to a day.

You need to lead by example and ensure that good employees that buy into new work methods don’t get penalized. Ultimately even little steps can drastically change the way your business works. More flexibility = more attractive to high performing millennials. 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 been significantly more thankful for extending their business trip to include a weekend in Chicago or a conference trip to London than they have for a raise. As a business bonus, experiential rewards are often less expensive than traditional ones. 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 Millennial Challenge is an insurmountable task. I don’t believe the challenge is any harder than any of the generations that have come before. The problem is certainly different. Hopefully, some of the strategies here are helpful to both employers and employees. Stay curious and open minded and look for new ways to extend your thinking.

Stay curious and open minded and look for new ways to extend your thinking. The single biggest solution to the Millennial Challenge is to have a healthy and ongoing conversation. If these thoughts do nothing but help prompt that conversation then I’ve had the desired effect.

About 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.

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