- - Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Analysis/Opinion

I’ll never forget during my early years as a college professor when I was told in no uncertain terms that I had been brought there to teach, not to raise the standard, and that I had better learn the difference between the two. Everything that I thought had been true about my career and work in higher education had been challenged.

I spent the next year feeling sorry for myself, interviewed some other places and realized quickly that the mentality at other places was much the same. At some point that year I decided that I would not stop doing what I know was needed to prepare the next generation of leaders and along the way uncovered some simple truths that continue to be part of how I believe we should develop people.

So what does all this have to do with millennials?

According to a recent report by international data analytics and polling company Gallup, a majority of millennial job seekers (59 percent) report that opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important to them when applying for a job. Comparatively, 44 percent of Gen Xers and 41 percent of baby boomers say the same about these types of opportunities.

The report adds that millennials assign the most importance to this job attribute, representing the greatest difference between what this generation values in a new job versus what other generations value.

“Millennials want a work environment that offers challenges and developmental opportunities,” the report concludes.

In 2015, FMI Quarterly surveyed almost 400 construction industry professionals, more than 200 of which were millennials, in order to measure this young generation’s level of engagement and explore what a millennial worker is truly looking for in an employer. One finding?

“This young generation of workers … enjoy collaborative employment opportunities that allow them to stretch their creative wings, share new ideas and actively participate in their companies’ successes. Too often, old job descriptions and company policies keep younger workers from contributing at levels that would create real value for their employers. In such cases, executives should think about how to change their work environments, team configurations and incentives.”

Said another way, millennials want challenges in the workplace. They don’t want menial tasks and a set of age-old instructions on how to complete them.

What that means is that your reluctant-to-innovate company, or “don’t-raise-the-standard” corporate culture, isn’t going to cut it with the best and the brightest millennials looking for meaningful employment. And that should scare you given that 33 percent of the American workforce is now comprised of millennials.

I’m a college professor. I know millennials. I’ve been spending every day with them for the past four years before you hired them.

In diseased workplace environments like the ones described above, I believe that millennials fall victim – really, for the second time — to what I call The Big Lie. The Big Lie is first and foremost this idea that if you go to college, you’re going to get a job and everything is going to work out. But The Big Lie is also that once you get a job, you will be given meaningful work that brings you gratification.

Millennials, both in paying for college and in accepting a job, have essentially made a bet – an investment of their time, energy, money and resources — in exchange for certain desired outcomes that often turn out to be nothing but big lies. Too many of my former students who landed jobs have been presented with menial, meaningless work that is not commiserate with their degree. They end up frustrated, cynical and begin looking for other opportunities.

It often happens because of archaic corporate systems that hinge on older generations holding down upper-level positions. In many cases, it’s a catch-22. Millennials are more educated than the generations before them, but they lack the experience to be able to do the jobs they want or in many cases deserve. And yet when they try to gain experience on the job, they are limited by their own job descriptions. Round and round it goes.

Where does this vicious cycle lead? Bored on the job, these talented millennials leave your workplace looking for a better opportunity. I don’t blame them. In fact, I encourage it.

Now in any business there are certain tasks that have to be done and that’s part of the growth process for any young employee. But the traditional growth process that heretofore has ordained a mandatory rite of passage in employment is changing. It has to change now that millennials dominate the labor pool.

Addressing this situation is not rocket science. If you are aware of the following millennial needs, and try to address them, I believe you can put an end to “The Big Lie” in your workplace.

Understand these four core attributes of millennials: they are looking for opportunities to learn, to grow in responsibility, to contribute to others, and to be recognized. Instead of following classic “rites of passage” in your job succession planning, start today asking yourself these questions with regards to your younger employees:

Where are their specific opportunities for them to learn?

To grow in responsibility?

To contribute to others?

To be recognized?

Companies that build a framework around those four ideas (or ideals) will be the ones that hold onto their talented millennials and also successfully recruit the best new talent.

You can’t hand millennials the keys to the corporate jet on Day One, but you can create a culture around these four questions. Doing so will organically rid your workplace of the menial and meaningless aspects of your job descriptions and provide millennials with a roadmap to progress with your business.

There’s a carrot for you if you do it. FMI Quarterly’s research also found that if employees feel like they are making progress and advancing in their careers, they will be more likely to remain with their companies for the long term. Of survey respondents indicating that they understood their career paths and opportunities within their firms, 81 percent of millennials expected to stay more than five years at their company. Conversely, of those respondents not expecting to stay more than five years, one-third were unsure of their current roles, responsibilities, and expectations.

By comparison, the cost of perpetuating The Big Lie where millennials feel they are not being prepared or seasoned to take on more responsibility is a steep one. According to Pew Research, half of millennials would rather have no job than a job they don’t like. And the Society for Human Resource Management estimates the cost of replacing an employee to be between 50 percent and up to 400 percent of their annual salary. (Forbes reports that the average cost to replace a millennial is between $15,000 and $25,000.)

Gallup’s advice to employers is perhaps the best advice when it comes to addressing The Big Lie and creating workplaces that embrace change and innovation, not fight it. “As part of their attraction strategy,” Gallup reported, “companies should accentuate their learning and development programs … for going from good to great.”

Here, here.

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