A new work force wave: managing Millennials

See beyond the stereotypes of the ‘Me Generation’
to harness creativity


Bellingham Automotive owner and Baby Boomer John Beebe works alongside service consultant and Milennial Derek Valum, 21. Beebe said one way he helps link the generations at his workplace is eating lunch together. “We just finished building a kitchenette,” Beebe said. “[Eating together] links the generations. It shows in productivity, atmosphere and satisfaction.”


They’re young, eager and willing to take risks. And, eventually, they’ll take over.

As the workplace begins to fill with more and more Millennials – generally regarded as those born between 1980 and 2000, also known as Generation Next, Generation Y and the iGeneration – many businesses are having to rethink their management practices.

“We are in the process of defining a new [business] model,” said University of Washington Information School professor Kevin Desouza. “Companies that are successful are the ones that change the model to accommodate the up-and-coming group.”

Coinciding with the rise of technology in the workplace and first wave of baby boomer retirement, Millennials are entering the work force in full force; a recent survey suggests an estimated 70 million Millennials in the United States, many of them ready to start their careers.

“Baby boomers need to understand that we weren’t raised in the same environment as [Millennials],” said 56-year-old Rand Lien, co-owner of the Bellingham-based Web design firm Toolhouse Design. “If you understand that, understand the way they work, then they work very well.”

The key to understanding Millennials, Desouza said, is looking at where they are coming from.

Desouza said Millennials tend to reject their baby-boomer parents’ notion of working their way up to the top of one big company because they’ve witnessed the effects of downsizing, layoffs and corporate scandals such as Enron and WorldCom.

“Having a company commitment may no longer pay off,” Desouza said.

Millennials grew up watching small-business risk takers such as Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen take on big corporations, and they tend to regard risk-taking as a lucrative endeavor.

“They take on jobs that have high risk but also high payoff,” Desouza said. “They want to make it big, and big quickly.”

But only after they’ve chosen their career – which it seems most are in no hurry to do.

“Graduates aren’t rushing out to get jobs,” said Tina Loudon, director of Academic Advising for Western Washington University. “They’re ‘job surfing.’”

According to a recent study at the University of Michigan, Millennials, more than any other generation, are more likely to job surf at a young age, and aren’t opposed to living with their parents.

Loudon said at the university level, a larger emphasis is being put on the idea that an academic major doesn’t necessarily dictate career. Likewise, the Academic Advising center encourages students to try internships – “test driving a career” – as a way to determine if that line of work is right for them.

What’s happening, then, is Millennials are testing out jobs more – and having a less concrete view of their career paths.


Tap into their potential

Because Millennials tend to be looser with career choices, it’s best to tap into their potential early on, Desouza said.

“Management practices have had to become more flexible and agile to truly take advantage of their innovation capacities,” Desouza said.

Many businesses have chosen to allow Millennials to have input in big meetings and business decisions.

Loudon said Millennials are expecting challenging, meaty assignments – and for whatever reason, they want to be treated as equals right off the bat.

Toolhouse Design’s Lien said when he was a young worker there was a pecking order, and oftentimes younger staff member’s ideas and opinions largely went unheard. Now, plenty of his firm’s projects have benefit from input from the youngest employees.

“So many times a young programmer will contribute a fresh, clear, practical idea,” Lien said. “It will blow away some of the marketing guys who have been doing this for 20 years.”

Over at Bellingham Automotive, 21-year-old Derek Valum works with a staff of mostly baby boomers and Generation X’ers. Owner John Beebe said having Valum on staff helped him understand the importance of perks like free Wi-Fi Internet in the waiting room. Beebe said Millennials often compliment him on the feature.

“In my mind, one of the best things a business can do is hire [Millennials],” Beebe said.

Beebe said scheduling appointments via e-mail is another popular facet of their business enjoyed by Millennials.


What they want

Another value Loudon said Millennials look for in a company is a sense of social responsibility. To recruit younger workers, companies should promote their social outreach practices such as supporting charities, employee volunteer work and environmental responsibility.

In Valum’s case, Bellingham Automotive’s social and environmental responsibilities played a large role in his job satisfaction. Bellingham Automotive educates customers about ways to make their cars more environmentally friendly and recently supported a multiple sclerosis fundraiser.

“If a company is environmentally responsible, socially responsible, and a good and fair business, it’s a huge appeal for me,” Valum said. “It shows me that they are not just looking at the small picture.”

Additionally, Loudon said, a work-life balance is important to Millennials. She said many Millennials watched their parents work long hours, into the evenings and on weekends.

“Boomers as a generation have been work-a-holics,” Loudon said. “Their kids saw that and said, ‘I don’t want that.’”

At the engineering firm CH2M Hill, human resources generalist Heather Everett said when the company is recruiting young employees, it promotes its vacation policy “and flexible hours” as added benefit. Everett said it makes the company more attractive to potential employees.

“A common misconception about the Millennials is they are less committed,” Everett said. “They’re just as committed to work, but they’re also committed to a work/life balance. They’re more well-rounded [than boomers].”


Working together

As more and more Millennials enter the work force, the organization of business may start to change altogether.

“The era of Generation X could be looked at as a transition from boomers to Millennials,” Desouza said. “A new business model is being created. A new organizational framework.”

Desouza said boomers should stop worrying about older generations and should focus on shifting their entire business model to prepare for Millennials.

“Give [Millennials] responsibility now, put young folks in management positions,” Desouza said. “We are in a learning phase, and it’ll only intensify.”

He said that while Millennials bring fresh, new ideas to the workplace, they might disregard senior staff and not value from their years of experience. Economics, marketing and finance haven’t changed in the last 100 years – and it takes experience to know this. If the young disregard the old, Desouza said, they’re bound to fail. Those who learn to combine their innovative ideas with work experience are sure to be successful.

Valum’s seemed to learn the value of this.

“It’s been extremely beneficial to work with some of the older guys,” Valum said. “Having a 30-year age gap, you learn a lot. Experience is not the same as education, and every day I learn something new.”

It’s good for the Millennials to learn as much as they can now, said Desouza. Someday, they’ll be running the show.


Related Stories