The young and the restless

The bad rap Gen-Yers get isn’t entirely unwarranted, but employers must find ways to engage them

Martin Barraud / Getty Images

Jason Dorsey was at a conference for fast-food franchisees last week, when a restaurant owner told him about being berated by the parent of a young employee after giving that worker a poor performance review. As a keynote speaker, Dorsey asked how many other employers had dealt with interfering parents. Roughly 45 of the 300 attendees threw up their hands. “The franchisees in that room have been in this business a long time, and they were complaining because they’ve never seen anything like this,” says Dorsey, 35, a consultant based in Austin, Texas, who advises companies on retaining millennials—one of the kinder terms ascribed to the Generation Y cohort born during the early 1980s or later.

Gen Y has been described as “Generation Me” in a book by the same title. The New York Times labelled the group “Generation Why Bother” in a harsh op-ed that criticized its members for staying home and checking Facebook instead of getting a driver’s licence and looking for work. A quick Google search also yields widely held stereotypes of millennials as coddled and entitled, shunning entry-level jobs, craving lots of vacation time and expecting to be CEOs within their first week at work.

With a reputation like that, why would any employer want to hire them, let alone retain them? The truth is, they don’t have a choice. This demographic makes up about one-third of Canada’s population, and they will dominate the workforce when the last of the Baby Boomers retire in just 15 years. At the same time, the cost of replacing a millennial employee who quits—according to a U.S. study that Millennial Branding conducted with—is approximately $15,000 to $25,000, after accounting for, among other things, recruitment expenses and higher training and development costs for such workers. In Canada, a 2013 study conducted by consulting firm Aon Hewitt shows that about one-third of approximately 38,000 Gen-Y employees surveyed think about leaving their jobs in their first year, and nearly half think about it after two to five years.

Gen-Y experts agree that employers and millennials need to be on the same page, and figure out how to work with each other. Lauren Friese, 30, founder of Toronto-based TalentEgg, an online job-searching tool for students and graduates, says employers have a responsibility to show new hires, especially at the entry level, what is and isn’t expected in the workplace. “If you’re hiring somebody at the entry level, you can’t expect him to know what it’s like to have a real job,” she says.

Indeed, some of Canada’s top 50 employers, as identified by Aon Hewitt, score very well when it comes to engaging and retaining millennials. Many have in-house training programs that invest in new employees and prepare them for careers specific to their organizations. The investment firm Edward Jones, for example, has a program that grooms people to be financial advisers, even if they don’t have the necessary academic background. “On top of the regular, extensive training that every new adviser receives, this is an additional rotation through the home office, which gives them a little bit more grounding and exposure to the industry and, certainly, to the culture in our firm and how we serve clients,” says Ola Wall, principal in human resources at Edward Jones in Mississauga, Ont.

Millennials also crave constant and immediate feedback to know if they are valued, says Dorsey. They would prefer to have quarterly lunches with the boss that are less formal than annual performance reviews.

In fact, a friendly atmosphere is important for the generation that grew up texting. The Keg chain of steakhouse restaurants attracts millennials because it incorporates fun into the workplace. “This sounds corny, but we hire ‘people people,’ ” says Dean Sockett, human resources director at The Keg Restaurants Ltd. “We hire people who like to be around people and engage in conversations. So, they end up working with similar personality types, and it ends up creating some friendships.” Mentorship programs and company events such as community fundraising or ski trips also help build camaraderie.

A strong common desire among millennials is the need for flexibility. Friese points out that, with technology, people are able, and expected, to manage both their work and personal lives at the same time. While previous generations preferred to compartmentalize their work and personal lives, Gen Y tends to blend the two. “Just the same way that an employer expects you to check your email while you’re at home and be available generally, especially if they’re providing you with a cellphone, so should employers expect and welcome their staff to integrate their lives into their work,” Friese says. In other words, bosses shouldn’t freak out when workers attend to personal business during office hours.

Another factor that leads to high levels of engagement among millennials is project-based work. Dorsey says that, while younger workers dread routine tasks, they embrace projects that lead to tangible results, even if they’re involved in only a small way.

Andrew Langstone, 29, left his previous job as a structural engineer about three years ago when he felt there wasn’t much room to grow. He joined PCL Constructors Inc. as a project manager in Edmonton after a friend spoke highly of the company, and has worked on major construction and renovation projects within hospitals since then. “Construction is a great industry for that and, in particular, being a general contractor within that industry, because we see the job from start to finish,” Langstone says. “You’re there from the day they break ground till the day they have the opening ceremony. It’s something you can take ownership of.”

PCL, which also has an in-house construction school, is another firm that scored well in millennial engagement in Aon Hewitt’s study. Engagement is determined by how consistently employees say positive things about their organization, whether they intend to continue working there and if they strive to achieve more than what’s expected of them.

While there are many ways employers can change their business practices to motivate and retain millennials, experts still agree that the onus should not rest on employers’ shoulders alone; young workers need to recognize they’re starting in junior positions and adapt to the culture of their new workplaces. “To an extent, I absolve people of some of the decisions they make when they’re young—because they’re young,” Friese says. “But the worst thing you can do is come in with guns blazing on your first day, doing things your way, like a cowboy.”

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