Written by Robin C. Payne of Junior Achievement of WNC (April 2017)
How can companies be open to younger generation work demands while ensuring that their businesses continue to run smoothly?
Bringing a puppy to an interview. Wearing camouflage to a job fair. Answering a personal call during a business meeting. These are things that the baby boomer and X generations would never even consider. Generally accepted business decorum, congenial respect, and preparation are typically norms of those born before 1980. Many business leaders are learning, however, that these once “given” soft skills are now a thing of the past.
Why is this happening? Why has there been such a huge shift in the behavior of today’s modern worker? Some people blame instant gratification machines (i.e. the global smart phone addiction), jam-packed schedules, or the helicopter generation of enabling parents. Most employers believe that this age group is lazy and, worst of all, entitled. Millennials, they report, are almost always five minutes late, not fully engaged at work, and difficult to manage.
“Companies today struggle to find good, dependable staff,” says Cindi Brooks, human resource director for Ingles Markets. After volunteering at a high school recently, she asked the class about their attendance and how many days they had missed. “The answers were just plain scary—big numbers! This opened the door for me to let them know employers need people that will show up and be dependable. Whether you have a good reason or a bad reason, customers aren’t served if you don’t go to work.”
Such anecdotes abound among human resource and hiring managers, as well as personnel who work with millennials on a daily basis. Typical attributes of this generation include: a desire for constant recognition (trophies for everyone!); rapid growth and advancement—the average tenure is two years (average tenure for Gen X is five years, and for boomers, seven); and the often elusive search for a “sense of purpose.” While this may sound like a woefully unprepared workforce is about to take over—it was the largest segment of the workforce as of the end of 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—there are things to be optimistic about, including their insistence on more flexible work schedules, requirement that their workplace be a good corporate steward, and time off for volunteering. For millennials, work-life balance is not just important; it is imperative.
Millennials also tend to demonstrate a much stronger entrepreneurial mindset than earlier generations. They seem more willing to take risks, cite creativity as a key job skill, and look for “coaching” instead of “bossing” from their superiors.
So where is the line in the sand? How can businesses remain flexible and open to the new—and presumably reasonable—demands of millennials, while also ensuring their workforce is presentable and good with customers, and understands that dues need to be paid?
Simon Sinek, leadership expert and author of best-selling 2009 book Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, recognizes that change is hard, but believes that it is companies’ responsibility to help out the younger generation. “It is up to corporations to work extra hard to find ways to teach millennials the social skills they are missing out on,” he notes. “A great start should be no cellphones allowed in conference rooms.”
“Over 70% of our work force is under the age of 18, and we struggle with the same things that all employers of high school students do—staff being attached to their phones,” says Roger Ward, sales director for Fun Depot in Asheville. After going through traditional punitive routes such as writing staff up or even firing them, Ward says they are moving to something more incentive-based. “We now have a point system that employees can earn gift cards and the like for turning in their phones at the start of their shift, having their employee handbook on them, or knowing the five C’s of hospitality and customer service on the spot.”
Another way to reinforce these habits, though it is often more of an introduction, is to interact with the younger generation when they are still a massive captive audience—in high school. While many high school students are already part of the workforce, they are still malleable enough to absorb lessons that can help them after graduation. How to work in a team; how to think critically; how to communicate effectively (in person, not through a screen): These are some of the things that are taught through local nonprofit Junior Achievement’s “Career Success” curriculum as part of the Project 2020 workforce development initiative.
The four-part goal of Project 2020 is to establish partnerships between businesses and local high schools to create a talent pipeline from school to work; to engage local businesses as volunteers in the classroom teaching the soft skills lessons, while also recruiting potential employees; to prepare between 2,500 and 3,000 students during the 2017-2020 time frame for work in our local economy; and to ultimately grow the regional talent base of millennials who are ready to work and are invested in their communities.
Planned is programming around workforce development that benefits both the students who will immediately go on to college and those that instead seek employment after graduation. Business volunteers from the community come into the classroom to share their own stories while teaching critical skills in an interactive, games-based format. These volunteers are typically hiring managers or those who can also utilize the students as a potential employee audience.
If there is one thing we know, it is that this is our new workforce, and in just a few years they will be the ones calling all of the shots. Businesses are becoming more receptive to their demands for improvements in areas such as paid paternity leave, advances in telecommuting, and flex-time scheduling. These are important first steps in bridging the gap between generational expectations. However, it is critical that we share the soft skills and basics of communication and respect that have been tools for personal and business success over centuries. These are the means that allow us to not only get jobs, but advance in our careers. As with the above-mentioned work-life balance, these skills are not just important—they are imperative.
Robin C. Payne
is regional director for Junior Achievement of Western North Carolina
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