Bridging the gap: Gen Y, employers must unite, experts say

By Lisa Allen

Contributing Writer

Published Aug. 19, 2011

If you want a project completed, give it to a Generation Y employee. If you want to assign a task with no questions asked, well, good luck with that.

“The reason they are called Generation Y is because they always ask ‘why,’ ” said James Rowell, president of Rising Sun Consultants in Hershey. “The older generation thinks, ‘How rude! Just do it.’ ”

Communication and expectations: that’s the difference between managers — most of them baby boomers — and Gen Y.

“You have to have an understanding of each other,” said Melissa Echevarria, human resources director at JPL Integrated Communications in Swatara Township. “You have to remove the barriers.”

Culture is the most important recruiting and retention tool for Generation Y, said Jim Carchidi, executive vice president of JFC Staffing Cos. in Camp Hill.

“They want a work-life balance,” he said.

Oversight should come in the form of mentoring and coaching, much as their parents treated them, he said.

“They want feedback when things are going well as much as when there is a problem,” Carchidi said. “Provide them with projects, not tasks. They want a sense of accomplishment more than money; and they thrive in teams, either in person or via Skype.”

He was referring to a software application that enables users to make voice and video calls and chats via the Internet.

In some instances, they might communicate better on Skype than face-to-face, said Maria Taylor, managing director of the Penn State Executive Programs at the Smeal College of Business.

“One of the things that HR professionals are faced with is this generational difference,” said Karen Young, chapter president of HR Professionals of Central PA and president of HR Resolutions in Harrisburg.

“Baby boomers have the hardest time adjusting to this new generation,” she said. “We are so used to showing up on time, doing what we were told and then taking our work home. Younger people have different priorities. They want to have a life.”

They are willing to exchange higher salaries for more time off and flexible schedules.

“They think, ‘I’ll do my job when I want to do it; I know when I’m most productive,’ Young said. “The more we allow the younger people have a say in the structure of their job, the happier they are.”

Young described the differences as a career ladder versus a career path. Baby boomers climbed the linear, constrained ladder.

“Now, someone might start in payroll, then say (they) want to know more about sales, then operations. That’s not job hopping; they are building their own career paths.”

Such diversity will make them better leaders tomorrow than the leaders today who followed a rigid, monochromatic corporate ladder, Young said.

What that means for managers is steering various generations differently. For example, baby boomers still need to move up a few more rungs on the ladder, Young said.

“Give them a few more opportunities to overwork themselves,” Young said, laughing.

Let younger workers explore different disciplines — somewhat of a lateral versus ladder approach.

“Upper management has to be so much more adaptable and flexible,” Young said. “Now, we can have four or five generations in the workplace at the same time.”

Rowell of Rising Sun said the younger generation needs to make an effort, too.

“The younger generation has to respect what the older generation considers respect. They have to acknowledge older people’s experience,” Rowell said. It could be as simple as asking what they think about a course of action.

“Baby boomers, who are 48 to 65 years old, are having a real disconnect with Gen Y. Baby boomers grew up when you worked all the time,” Rowell said.

Younger workers also need to understand the boundaries and conform to the job expectations and work within the culture, Taylor said.

Generation Y wants to cram as much work as possible into a short amount of time so they can go do what they really want to do.

“For the older generation, they see that as a poor work ethic,” Young said. “They see it as lazy and disrespectful. But it isn’t. Gen Y is getting more done is less amount of time. Technology is a huge part of this.”

All generations have four things in common, Taylor said:

• Success and reputation of employers.

• Engagement of senior management.

• Ability to advance their skills.

• A greater desire for a work-life balance.

And no one likes a micromanager.

“Horrible bosses are still horrible bosses. (Gen Y) is quicker to call them on it,” Echevarria said.

Reining in communication

It’s no secret Gen Y is extremely adept with technology. They’ve never known anything else.

Some managers are still trying to figure out how to incorporate social media into the workplace. Should employees be able to check Facebook and Twitter during their workday?

“Companies need to be explicit about the ground rules,” Taylor said. “You can use it as a positive tool, but you want to try to channel it.”

One boundary is whether it interferes with productivity.

“You can’t be chatting and not getting your work done,” Rowell said. “It’s no different than the employee who spends hours talking to the guy in the next cubicle. Neither is good.”

More progressive companies are moving to that style of communication by setting up their own secure social media interfaces, Taylor said.

“They grew up digital natives,” Echevarria said. “They live out loud. When you communicate with them, think about how they already communicate. Reach them through Facebook, IM, Twitter. That connects with them.”

JPL set up reverse mentoring, where interns coach their elders. For example, an intern might show a video producer new software that his or her college friends use.

The culture creep goes both ways. “One of our producers has developed a wider appreciation of music,” she said.

The same premise applies for recruiting younger workers.

If you’re looking to recruit Generation Y employees, you’ll find them only via social media, online job boards and Craigslist.

“You have to use social media. I can’t remember the last time I posted a job in a newspaper,” Young said. “It’s cost-prohibitive. I use Craigslist and PennLive.”

What you say in those ads matters, too.

“We position our postings with what the jobseeker will get, not what we want,” Echevarria said.

So far, JPL is keeping their interest. With 86 employees, turnover in the past six months has been only 2 percent. It averages 11 percent, Echevarria said.

“But I tell managers all the time, don’t be fooled by the economy,” she said. “There is always room on the competitor’s roster for your stars.”

JPL is very open about possible salary increases in regard to how much money is available and what the criteria is for getting a raise.

“In times of economic uncertainty, you can’t communicate too much.”

However, some younger workers’ expectations are a little off the mark, Carchidi said.

“Professors are giving them false hope” regarding their salary demands. They still have to earn certain levels of compensation. Some are slower to accept that, he said.

“They are happy sitting at home playing Xbox and waiting for the perfect opportunity. I’m sure their parents aren’t too happy about that.”

Class of 2011: Top 5 attributes of a job/employer

1. Opportunity for personal development

2. Job security

3. Good insurance benefits

4. Friendly co-workers

5. High starting salary

Source: 2011 survey of 20,000 graduating seniors, National Association of Colleges and Employers.

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