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Eager to Help

Recruiters are starting to tout their volunteer opportunities to attract a more community-conscious Gen Y workforce.

Sunday, March 2, 2008
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After earning bachelor of science degrees in 2005 in both electrical engineering and computer engineering from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., Alexis Bruemmer searched for a job in a field dominated by men. Actively looking for software engineers, many companies courted her. But what ultimately convinced her to accept the job she still holds today weren't the usual magnets, such as salary and benefits. It was a feature more unique to her generation: volunteerism.

During job interviews, she posed questions about volunteer opportunities. However, most recruiters were lukewarm about the subject. She recalls only one being enthusiastic about her company's outreach activities, sharing personal stories about her own volunteer experiences. That's where she landed.

"There were definitely companies I interviewed with that didn't have that strong volunteer spirit that is here," says Bruemmer, now a 24 year-old software engineer at IBM in Beaverton, Ore. "Transferring [my] passion for technology to another student is the ultimate reward for me. That was definitely a deciding factor in which job I ultimately chose."

Bruemmer is part of the millennial generation, often referred to as Gen Yers, who are in their teens and 20s. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2006 Current Population Survey, there are more than 57 million people between the ages of 16 and 29 in the United States. Of those, 35.8 million are employed.

As Gen Yers entered the workforce over recent years, employers discovered one of the key passions of this group -- besides iPods, flip-flops and text messaging -- was donating time to worthy causes. Many grew up serving their communities, often as requirements for school projects, extra credit or to qualify for a good college. With such outreach second nature to Gen Yers, some employers started a recruitment trend by using their volunteer opportunities and policies as tools to position themselves for potential hires.

Surveys support this new reality. In 2007, HR consulting firm Deloitte polled 1,000 18- to 26-year-old employees. Eighty percent identified themselves as volunteers and expected their employer to share similar values, says Evan Hochberg, national director of community involvement at Deloitte's Washington office.

Another 66 percent stated they prefer to work for companies that provide volunteer opportunities, while only 30 percent believed their companies offered compelling volunteer programs. In that same survey, 66 percent responded that volunteer programs were not even mentioned during the hiring process.

"The most telling thing about this survey is that you have this gap between young people saying, 'I'm a volunteer; it's part of who I am; I look at companies and judge their values based on how they promote and support volunteerism,' " says Hochberg, "[and] you've got companies saying, 'We're at war for talent; we want the most talented people to come to our organization.' Yet, [volunteerism] is this missing piece."

Stan Smith, national director of next-generation initiatives -- which falls under HR's umbrella -- at Deloitte in Greenville, S.C., points to another recent Deloitte survey of roughly 3,000 people between the ages of 12 and 20. They were asked to identify what good companies do. Nearly 80 percent stated that good companies continually invest in their employees and community and consider their impact on the environment.

The survey results prompted Deloitte to beef up its own volunteer programs and policies. Consider Impact Day, the company's five-year-old program that pays employees to volunteer for a charity on one Friday in June. With their supervisor's approval, employees can also take off paid time during the week -- as long as they complete assigned work tasks -- to volunteer for charities or organizations that Deloitte supports, such as Junior Achievement.

Meanwhile, for the past several years, HR has been piloting a volunteer program in Atlanta, Boston and Chicago, in which full-time employees in good standing can take off up to 20 paid community-service hours per year with their supervisor's approval.

"We're in a very competitive client-service business where, if we did not offer some of these things, we would have more people leave and maybe fewer people [apply]," says Smith, adding that Gen Yers prefer team activities, especially those in which they can learn from senior staff. "They're happier to come to a company that does invest in its employees, environment and community because their expectations of large businesses are that they will not care."

Online Impact

To appeal to millennials' tech-savvy natures, some companies have also recently added online components to their volunteer programs.

Several years ago, HR and corporate community relations spearheaded IBM's launch of its on-demand community, a Web-based portal for the company's volunteers and retirees, says Diane Melley, the company's director of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs in West Chester, Pa.

Employees can view hundreds of corporate-sponsored volunteer programs, post opportunities, sign up to participate in events, receive technology grants for charities, download presentations or software for nonprofits or schools, track the number of hours they volunteer and chat with other volunteers worldwide.

Of the company's estimated 200,000 U.S. employees, roughly 50,000 volunteer. Melley believes half are Gen Yers. Although the company doesn't offer paid volunteer days, managers can approve flex volunteer days during the week, she says. Employees who volunteer more than 40 hours a year can also apply for a $3,500 technology grant for a nonprofit or school.

IBM's recruiters talk with job candidates about the company's overall corporate-citizenship strategy and how volunteerism can play a large role in their career growth and personal development.

"It makes [employees] stronger, skilled and [better able to] fit into the IBM team and culture," Melley says. "They can do work in the community that matters to them and also be enriching their skills."

Volunteerism can also play a large role in helping HR build an effective workforce. According to Melley, HR leads various outreach programs such as Engineering Week, during which IBM employees around the world are encouraged to talk to students about engineering careers during one week in February to attract people to the profession and help fill IBM's pipeline of technical talent.

In 2007, HR also coordinated 45 Excite camps at different IBM campuses. The week-long camps target girls in middle schools, introducing them to careers in science and math.

Last year, New York-based financial firm Citi also implemented an online volunteer management system to help its volunteer leaders better manage activities.

They can post volunteer opportunities and e-mail volunteer groups about specific projects while employees can register for activities and track their volunteer hours.

The bank is in the process of rolling out the system in different languages to employees in 100 different countries, says Claudia McNamee, director of global volunteer initiatives at Citi.

"This piece of our program has been very attractive to a lot of employees," she says. "[Gen Yers] seem to latch on to it."

Each year, Citi's 350,000 employees -- 150,000 work in the United States -- receive a paid community-service day and, if they volunteer more than 50 hours, they can apply for a $500 community grant through the bank's foundation.

Likewise, the company celebrates Annual Global Community Day, when all employees are encouraged to volunteer for any community activity on one Saturday in November. The company then creates online photo galleries reflecting the day's events that occurred throughout the world.

Although separate from HR, McNamee's office works in collaboration with HR and other departments across the organization to create volunteer programs. She says HR representatives serve on various steering committees that monitor or oversee such programs.

Granted, an opportunity to volunteer isn't the No. 1 reason Gen Yers accept a job offer, but they do ask a lot of questions about it, says Debbie Bertan, Citi's director of campus strategy. Because it factors in to the candidates' decision-making, she says, the company's recruiters also discuss a broader theme during interviews -- the bank's social conscience and global responsibility.

More broad-reaching discussions are also part of the interviewing process at Dow Chemical Co., headquartered in Midland, Mich. Gen Yer Toni McEwan, market manager for Dow Coating Solutions and a recruiter at Purdue University for its commercial development program, says university students are surprised to learn of the company's involvement in volunteer programs. After each recruitment presentation, she says, students sometimes tell her they will now consider Dow as a future employer because of its worldwide community footprint.

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"When I was evaluating future employers upon graduating college, the one thing that attracted me to Dow was the quality, integrity and the willingness of Dow people to get involved in the communities where they lived and worked," she says.

To strengthen Dow's recruitment efforts, volunteerism is highlighted on its Web site, in its marketing collateral and especially during job interviews, says Julie Fasone Holder, Dow's corporate vice president of marketing and sales, human resources and public affairs. She says recruiters sometimes brag about employees' volunteer accomplishments with job candidates.

Back at the office, some employees can use paid workdays to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and other company-sponsored charities, if volunteering supports their professional development plan. Fasone Holder says supervisors make that determination.

The company's foundation also gives each Dow site a budget for local philanthropy. Employees can ask for small contributions -- up to $500 -- toward a specific charity or activity regardless of how many hours they volunteer.

Volunteering makes Gen Yers feel good about themselves because they can fulfill some of their aspirations outside the workplace, Fasone Holder says. It engages them while building company loyalty and employee morale.

"[Gen Yers] want to work for a company that's going to make a difference in the world," she says, adding that many seek companies that will allow them to continue volunteering. "They want to make sure the company supports them."

Head Start

Many Gen Yers who've never held a job possess a variety of organizational and leadership skills because they actively volunteer. Some employers say they seek out opportunities that will help them develop valued business skills versus waiting for in-house opportunities to arise.

However, companies can jump-start the process. For instance, employers can conduct focus groups to identify charities that employees support that are in sync with the company's values, says Karlin Sloan, CEO at Karlin Sloan & Co., a leadership-development firm in Chicago.

Then, employee teams can be formed to create volunteer programs or events that help a community or nonprofit in some way. HR can help them get started and monitor their progress to ensure they're on the right track, but must let them manage, collaborate and lead the way.

"You can start with a pilot program and then expand it in creative directions," says Sloan. "They look forward to it and it doesn't have to require their constant volunteerism. All of a sudden, you've got this engaged workforce that has tremendous energy and real excitement about the organization."

Others turn to relief programs as a teaching tool. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, employees at CDW, a technology company in Vernon Hills, Ill., opted to donate the company's $1 million holiday-party fund to the city's recovery effort.

Over a four-month period, the company sent 400 employees to New Orleans -- 30 at a time -- for several days each to work with Habitat for Humanity. Most were Gen Yers, who gained valuable organizational and planning skills. The company paid all of their expenses while keeping their paychecks intact.

Today, approximately 40 percent of the company's 6,100 employees throughout the United States and Canada and 70 percent of its sales force are Gen Yers, says Melissa McMahon, CDW's senior director of talent acquisition.

She says the company has made a number of adjustments in its recruitment and retention strategies. It now supports an online tool that enables employees to type in their ZIP code or city for local volunteer opportunities and offers employees one paid day off of work per year for community service.

Volunteering is also tied to employees' professional-development plans through a program called Achieve-It, which identifies volunteer opportunities that offer skill development and valuable experiences needed for career growth. And every recruiter talks about volunteerism up front during his or her sales pitch.

"We're able to successfully use [volunteerism] as a selling tool with Gen Y candidates and as a differentiator," McMahon says. "More and more, we're finding that candidates are equally as concerned with the reputation of a company and its commitment and involvement outside the workplace."

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