Human Resources

Bridging the talent gap with a new generation

June 8, 2012
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We have all heard much about differences in generational thinking. Due to our increased longevity, health care and prescription drug costs, delayed access to Social Security benefits, and our desire to maintain the heightened lifestyles resulting from an extended period of prosperity, we currently have four generations working side by side for the first time in history.

The generations within the work force include Veterans, born before 1943 (roughly 52 million); Boomers, born between 1943 and 1960 (roughly 73 million); Gen X, born between 1960 and 1980 (roughly 70 million); and Gen Y/Millennials, born between 1980 and 2001 (roughly 70 million). Alarmingly, there are nearly twice as many Boomers and Veterans leaving the work force than X-ers available, so much of the talent needed to replace retiring workers will come from the relatively untested Millennial talent pool.

The fact that each generation has its own unique perspective is not new. While we cannot eliminate all the friction and misunderstandings caused by different perspectives within a workplace, understanding their origins and existence should help us to leverage the strengths while overcoming any potential negative impact.

Gen Y-ers were raised in a world filled with changing values and broken promises. Situational ethics and a sense of “fluid morality” resulted from the crumbling of our society’s conservative foundation. In that both parents and grandparents (and in many cases, multiple sets of parents due to high divorce/remarriage rates) were involved in their upbringing, this generation is potentially the “most parented” of any and has been sheltered from failure more than any other.

Managers should recognize that Millennials tend to act first and then think later. Frequently given the opportunity to change when making mistakes, many were sheltered from experiencing the ramifications of failure. As a result, Gen Y-ers are extremely optimistic (having been rewarded for trying and praised for working hard), yet their experience base has not yet developed to the point of supporting or justifying their perceptions.

In communicating with Gen Y-ers, recognize they have grown up “living and dying by” their electronics. The generation has developed a cryptic language that includes abbreviations and phrases to communicate quickly and explicitly to their peers — but it flies in the face of “traditional” workers who value rules and well-packaged presentations. Having lived in a world of online chat rooms, cell phones, iPods and television — often all at the same time — Millennials have a tendency to multi-task without a lot of planning. And they often do so without much social grace or charm, since most interaction has been done electronically.

Street smart and technologically well informed, the generation learns by doing. To train them, it’s often useful to convert written materials to the computer, allowing for at-home and self-paced training. Gen Y needs to be entertained as much as it is trained, and must be fully engaged in order to expect the assimilation of knowledge. An integral part of the process is mixing presentation techniques to involve them within the learning process if training is provided within a classroom setting.

In motivating Gen Y-ers, recognize they may feel you are lucky to have them on the job rather than feeling fortunate to be working. Provide flexibility in work schedules whenever possible and freedom from oppressively tight management. Allow them to create change by embracing their untarnished perspectives while providing them with interpersonal skills and tools needed to bring others along willingly when the path is different from history or tradition. Wanting what they have seen their caretakers receive, they seek security but are reluctant to pledge their loyalty to an organization because their parents’ service was not honored during corporate downsizing. They also value time off rather than pay or promotion. They came into this world, saw how their parents worked, want what their parents have, but have never really had to work to accomplish that goal (nor do they particularly feel compelled to begin now).

People have undeniable differences. We have different motivators, ways to learn, means of being rewarded and have assumed individual values that exhibit themselves in the way we think and work. We should never forget, though, that:

  • When dealing with any worker, it is important to recognize that every employee should be held to the same standards in regard to job accomplishment.

  • No adaptation should be made that compromises the integrity of a job.

  • All employees must understand the need for reasonable policies or procedures that are established in the best interest of the organization, and must either comply with them or accept the consequences of their actions.

Our emerging work force communicates but does not talk. They “text” but do not write. Millennials may be the most educated, and most immature, ever to enter the work force. Many are truly concerned about their communities, about sustainable resources and in a constant state of “self-discovery.” To leverage their inquisitive nature, provide as much flexibility and as many opportunities for monitored change as possible.

The much talked about “talent gap” is real. We currently have more positions available than we have qualified, reliable workers. To remain viable and sustainable, business must bridge the gap by recognizing the value of “human capital” and investing in its development, for in the end, people truly are all that really matters!

David Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids.

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