Career development is a concern that employers simply can't afford to overlook when it comes to attracting and retaining millennials, who are passionate in their quest for such opportunities.
By Julie Cook Ramirez
When one of her direct reports asked to come in and talk, Ferril Onyett wasn't fazed. As director of learning and organizational development at Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell Inc., she's constantly meeting with members of her mostly millennial 10-person team. But this conversation quickly turned into something Onyett didn't want to hear. The talented young OD associate was leaving -- not for more money or a more prestigious title, but to acquire different experiences.
"She said, 'I've been here five years and I've done a lot of amazing work, but for me to continue to grow and get different experiences, I need to go work in a different industry,' " recalls Onyett.
That sentiment is a common one among millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 1996, who tend to view their jobs in terms of opportunities to learn and grow -- more so than other generations, according to a new report, How Millennials Want to Work and Live, by Washington-based Gallup Inc. Eighty-seven percent of millennials rate professional or career growth and development opportunities as important in a job, with 59 percent saying opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important when applying for a position.
While it would be easy to assume each generation places an equally high value on development when they first enter the workforce, that doesn't appear to be the case, according to Larry Emond, managing partner at Gallup. "We never saw Gen Xers and baby boomers think this way when they were this age," says Emond. "There's something different in millennials. They just have this desire to learn and grow that's particularly acute."
Millennials' intense hunger for development may be a consequence of the Great Recession, says Lisa Buckingham, executive vice president and chief human resources, brand and communications officer at Lincoln Financial Group in Radnor, Pa. These young adults watched as their parents lost jobs and lost much of the value of their retirement funds. Older members of the millennial generation endured their own trials, often struggling to find a job after college or even move out of their parents' house, due to the economic downturn, she says.
As a result, they have a burning desire to engage in as many developmental opportunities as possible, bolstering their skill sets and potentially making them recession-proof. And millennials' dissatisfaction with their current organization's developmental opportunities appears to be leading many of them to the door.
According to Gallup, just 39 percent of millennials say they learned something they could use to do their jobs better within the last 30 days prior to taking the survey, while just under half strongly agree they've had opportunities to learn and grow during the past year. Most disturbingly, one-third of millennials say their most recent learning opportunity at work wasn't worth their time. And, now that the economy has rebounded, millennials aren't hesitant to seek out new opportunities, with 60 percent telling Gallup they are open to a different job.
If employers fail to provide rigorous developmental opportunities that resonate with young employees, they risk turning the stereotype of the job-hopping millennial into a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Evan Sinar, chief scientist and vice president of Development Dimensions International in Pittsburgh.
"As organizations have gotten flatter and narrower, and dealing with a tight talent environment . . . the pressure on a longer-term, sustainable, career-driven development model has increased," says Sinar. "Unfortunately, many employees -- millennial and otherwise -- aren't feeling like their organizations are developing them as they should. Once millennials stop growing, they start going."
Keeping up with this incredibly ambitious generation can be challenging, as employers strive to ensure millennials find and engage in sufficient developmental opportunities within the organization. From fostering more open communication between managers and millennials to enhancing and customizing developmental opportunities, some human resource leaders are working hard to meet millennials' expectations and give them compelling reasons to stay.
A Development "Passport"
One of the biggest pitfalls to avoid when developing millennials lies in assuming that merely providing them with an app for learning and development will be sufficient, says Sinar. While millennials clearly are technically savvy, they prefer a mix of learning formats, he explains.
"They prefer all kinds of learning, and actually prefer formal classroom learning more than non-millennials do," says Sinar.
At Lincoln, employees partake in a variety of classes, including in-person and online offerings. Millennial employees have shown a particular fondness for on-site sessions taught by professors from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in nearby Philadelphia, says Jen Warne, senior vice president and head of enterprise talent and corporate human resources.
Millennials "want their heads to hurt at work" from absorbing so much knowledge, says Buckingham, adding that they aren't shy about letting you know it.
Warne echoes her assessment: "They expect to be stretched and tested daily in areas where they don't yet have experience."
This appears to be true across organizations and industries.
"Millennials want to grow very quickly, and they push us to help them move more quickly," says Onyett. "I'm always amazed at how much responsibility they want to take on and how much they're willing to try things and take risks."
The key lies in helping young workers identify and take advantage of developmental opportunities within the organization, says Renée Smith, director of talent and rewards at Willis Towers Watson in San Francisco. Unfortunately, many organizations often fail to make such information visible internally, even as employees are constantly barraged with outside opportunities that lead them to look elsewhere.
"If I can go on LinkedIn and see the opportunities that are available outside my organization, why can't I do that out inside my organization?" says Smith. "That information isn't always available or transparent."
Smith recommends that companies launch online marketplaces that not only list internal job openings, but also projects and opportunities for employees to engage in on-the-job development. Such marketplaces would let employees "collect" developmental opportunities as they build their career portfolios.
"Think of the notion of a passport and you are stamping your passport with different opportunities along the way," says Smith. "The role of the manager is more like a tour guide, helping you understand where the opportunities are and where you might go next."
The concept has already been embraced at Lincoln, where the language has shifted to "less about career paths and more about your career portfolio of experiences," says Warne. While the shift was not undertaken specifically to appeal to millennials, Warne feels the portfolio mind-set is very much aligned with the way in which they tend to approach their careers.
The employee-manager relationship is key to millennial development, according to Gallup, which found millennials would rather have a coach than a boss. In true millennial fashion, however, young workers are putting a new spin on the coaching relationship.
"You're not really giving them orders [so much as] telling them what to achieve and then they tell you how they'll achieve it," says Danielle Monaghan, head of talent acquisition for the consumer division at Amazon in Seattle.
While Monaghan stresses that Amazon isn't doing anything different specifically for millennials, she says the company's developmental programs certainly appeal to that generation.
"Millennials are very curious and hungry to learn," says Monaghan, adding that it's especially important for them to see the impact of their work on the business early in their career.
Millennials can move up quickly at Amazon because the company doesn't have any time-in-level requirement. Aligning employees to the appropriate opportunities begins with quarterly one-on-one conversations to inform them about various initiatives taking place within the organization, but it doesn't end there. "Amazonians" are welcome to inquire about developmental opportunities at any time.
"If they see opportunities that align to their values and interests, they can explore and move," says Monaghan. "Millennials, in particular, appreciate that."
At Taco Bell's restaurant support center, millennials have the opportunity to serve on "sprint teams," or groups of cross-functional employees that meet for 30 to 60 days to "quickly tackle business challenges." They meet on an ad hoc basis, as needed.
The quick-service restaurant company also recently hosted an "innovator's playground," where employees were given a business challenge and three hours in which to solve it. Challenges included: "How do we blow up our performance- management system and process? How do we improve order accuracy in the restaurants? How do we reduce the time it takes to get a new team member to productivity?" Enrollment is open for the voluntary program, which is "very hands-on, very innovative, very creative" -- in other words, exactly the kind of development millennials are seeking, says Onyett.
"They want to be given a project and just run with it," she says. "They'll check in and make sure they're aligned and they aren't missing something, but they really want to be empowered to go do the work."
As part of its two-year leadership preparation program for new campus recruits, Lincoln recently conducted a "live design thinking session" in which members of the cohort came together to solve a business challenge. The business is currently evaluating the group's proposed solution to determine if it can be implemented.
Making the Connection
While the prevailing stereotype is that millennials aren't willing to "pay their dues," Warne hasn't seen that among Lincoln's millennial population. She says young employees aren't resistant to "developmental opportunities that aren't necessarily upward," so long as there's a clear line of sight between the opportunity and their eventual career growth.
"They are very willing to put in the effort, to invest in their careers, to do what it takes, and to put in extra hours," says Warne. "They just want to be able to have some return on investment. It's up to us as their employer to articulate that value proposition for them."
As they seek to help millennials recognize the value of developmental activities that don't immediately result in a promotion, managers would be wise to stress a new definition of "opportunity," says Beverly Kaye, founder of Career Systems International in Moosic, Pa. Instead, she says, employees should be encouraged to ask, " 'What's the next opportunity for me to grow and learn and develop so I'm ready for anything?' " Furthermore, Kaye adds, lateral moves should be acknowledged as a critical component of someone's development and celebrated.
For her part, Buckingham feels Lincoln still has a ways to go in terms of making it "cool" for employees to take on developmental assignments that don't immediately result in another step up the ladder.
"When we talk to people about moving from one business unit to another, possibly in a lateral move, they're like, 'Why would I do that?' " she says. "Everybody is so focused on moving up the ladder, but we need to help them understand they'll move up that ladder way faster if they have experience in different businesses with different managers and different ways of thinking."
No matter how diligently a company works to provide sufficient career-development opportunities, millennials sometimes choose to seek out experiences that cannot be found within the organization -- as in the case of Onyett's direct report.
While Buckingham acknowledges that the loss of a talented young employee is unfortunate, she is enthusiastic about the positive impact Lincoln is making on the way all generations learn and develop.
"In a very elegant and graceful way, millennials are pushing Gen Xers and boomers to continue to learn and build their skills," she says. "The millennials are an inspiration, especially in an industry like ours, where we are living and breathing so much change every single day."