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story.lead_photo.caption Bob Beckmann, project manager for nonprofit Missouri Enterprise, tells local business men and women about how to attract and retain millennials. It's going to require some change for many companies, he said. Photo by Helen Wilbers / Fulton Sun.

Today, millennials make up the biggest share of America's workforce, but many companies struggle to attract, retain and understand millennial employees.

"There's a big disconnect with how companies are recruiting millennials," said Amy Susan, communications director for Missouri Enterprise. "The world is their oyster and (millennials) have lots of options."

That's why Missouri Enterprise, a nonprofit dedicated to workforce development (particularly in the manufacturing sector), is offering training in exactly that. ME representatives stopped by the Callaway Chamber of Commerce on Thursday to teach a half-day training session on what millennials want from their jobs.

ME project manager Bob Beckmann developed the course after hearing from other states' Enterprise initiative members about companies' struggles with the millennials. He also witnessed the generation gap firsthand with his son, who now works as a software developer for Amazon.

"We'll hear complaints like 'They're always on their phone' or 'They don't work hard,' but that's not really why we're here," Beckmann said.

The fact is, Beckmann said, companies need millennials. His generation — baby boomers — are retiring earlier than previous generations, and Gen X simply isn't as large. And millennials have plenty to offer.

"Technology is coming big time, in everything," Beckmann said. "When you can order a car from your phone or a phone from your car, you realize technology has permeated everything."

While most boomers had their first experience with computing at around age 25, the average millennial has been plugged in since age 4.5, Beckmann said. That type of experience is invaluable in an increasingly tech-centric world. Used to having access to vast amounts of information at any given moment, millennials tend to be highly observant and informed. They're also quite capable of working hard, especially if given an appealing challenge.

"Doing a monotonous job is a living hell for a millennial," Beckmann said. "But give them a challenge — it's like when my son would hit a level of a video game he couldn't get through and would stay up until 4 a.m. trying."

Understanding millennials

Beckmann cautioned every millennial is different and his advice won't pertain to all of them. However, certain experiences the generation has shared have produced some definite trends in how most millennials see the workplace and what they want out of their jobs.

Millennials watched their parents go through mass layoffs during the 2008 recession, and it's made them wary.

"They think, 'Why should a person be loyal to the company if the company isn't loyal to the employees?'" Beckmann said.

A company that's transparent about its financial situation and makes a visible effort to avoid eliminating positions will win goodwill, he said.

Growing up plugged in to the news cycle has made millennials hyper-aware of social and environmental issues. They're interested in companies who have a clear mission, partner with charities, engage in the community and/or make efforts to "go green." Think of Tesla, a company beloved by millennials, and its renewable energy focus.

Another example: Millennials tend to have a different sense of professionalism, and they're willing to push back against seemingly arbitrary policies — from dress codes to start times.

"Being professional is getting your job done on time, to the boss's satisfaction," Beckmann said. "Anyone can get in to work at 7:30 a.m."

Especially in office settings, where a hard start time isn't essential to the company's functioning, millennials appreciate flexible hours. One extreme example: His son and his coworkers can come in to work any time between 6 a.m. and noon, so long as they stay for eight hours.

Millennials also tend to see a company's structure as more flat.

"Back in my manufacturing days, I would sooner go talk to the President of the United States than approach the plant manager," Beckmann said.

At the same time, they're conflict-averse. Some will simply "ghost" a job on the first day rather than ask what they fear may be too many questions. They'll also prefer emailing or texting over phone or in-person conversations.

"The reason a lot of them leave is that they feel lost," Beckmann said.

These are some of the reasons why he recommends implementing a mentorship program. Having a designated mentor gives millennial employees an appropriate person to approach about their questions and problems. The mentor can also help orient the new employee about the norms of company culture.

Attract and retain

Employment rates are high, which means companies are having to work extra-hard to attract promising employees. When those employees are millennials, a few changes go a long way toward making a job seem appealing, Beckmann said.

Some are relatively surface-level. He said he's seen some success in companies offering free lunches and snacks. When he asked one employer why they went to the expense, the employer pointed out his salaried employees are being paid $30-$40 an hour. When they leave work to go to lunch and take up to two hours to return, that costs the company $60-$80 per employee.

"But if you feed them at work, at a cost of about $6 to $8 per person, they get their lunch, sit in the workplace probably talking about work, and are back at their desks in 20 minutes," Beckmann said.

Being active in the community — whether that's partnering with a local United Way or sponsoring the occasional fun run — is also appealing to many millennials.

Of course, the first step is recruitment. Companies have to reach millennials where they are. That means posting jobs not only on the company website but also on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Glassdoor and Indeed. It also means making sure the company's social media accounts are active and engaging.

"Short videos are great for telling your company's story," Beckmann said. "Also, in manufacturing, 'How It's Made' style videos can get millions of views. People love watching labels fly onto bottles."

Companies may have more success attracting millennials if they're located in urban areas, especially downtown, he added.

One other note on job listings: Don't ask for too much in terms of experience or education. A maintenance job shouldn't require a bachelor's degree, and on-the-job training can bring an employee up to speed in an entry-level position in no time.

Beckmann also talked about how to keep millennial employees. Millennials appreciate good pay and decent retirement and health care benefits as much as any other employee. But they also appreciate job perks that benefit their life outside of work. For example, as more millennials have children, they'll find jobs with flexible hours and remote-work options attractive.

And though it sounds wild, some companies have had success with unlimited vacation time. Employees must ask for supervisor and coworker permission (which keeps them from vanishing at the busiest times), and the perk tends to be self-limiting. If they blow all their savings on a month-long globe-trotting trip, it'll probably be another several years before they take a big chunk of time off, Beckmann said. Meanwhile, if an employee has two "use it or lose it" weeks of vacation time every year, they're going to use it.

To learn more about the classes and services offered by Missouri Enterprise, visit missourienterprise.org.

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