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Millennials: Will Work for Knowledge

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What do millennials want? It’s the question I’ve answered a few times on this blog and one that’s being asked in every executive suite and human resources office today. They, we, want a lot of things; some the same as previous generations, some new. Although it’s not fair to categorize all millennials as one and assume they all want the same thing, I couldn’t help but dig into this EdAssist survey that found what millennials want most is learning and development.

I interviewed Jay Titus, senior director of academic services for EdAssist, to discuss the study’s findings. Below are edited excerpts of our interview.

Jay Titus, EdAssist

Jay Titus, EdAssist

What do we know about millennials and learning and development? Do they value it?

Titus: At EdAssist, we recently conducted a study on millennialsto better understand the challenges they face when it comes to life and the workplace. What we now know is that what millennials want most is long-term stability. When we dug deeper to understand what they want from employers, learning and development opportunities were paramount. For instance, we asked millennials to choose between two similar jobs, and nearly 60 percent picked the job with strong potential for professional development over one with regular pay raises. It would seem to me that millennials see continuing education and focused professional development opportunities as a way of achieving the long-term stability they yearn for.

The study also showed the types of sacrifices they will make to continue learning while working. Many said they would cut their time watching TV, on the Internet, on social media and with friends in half to take classes while working. Nearly one-third said they would even give up vacations for the duration of their program to take classes while working. Knowing how important technology and personal relationships are to millennials, it becomes even clearer how important learning is to them.

Why does learning mean so much? Your study pointed out that Gen Y employees want it so much that they say it’s one of the top reasons they’ll stay with a company.

Titus: Learning is especially important to millennials for a few reasons.

First and foremost, they have just lived through one of the worst economic depressions of our lifetime. They have seen loved ones lose jobs and retirement savings, have lost jobs and savings themselves, have graduated from high school or college only to struggle for months on end to find work. Again, they want stability and it appears they see their ability to continue to learn and develop as a professional as a way of upping their chances of having a stable life.  

The study also showed nearly three-quarters of millennials feel their schooling didn’t give them the preparation they needed to enter the workforce. It’s clear that in many cases there is still a disconnect between higher education and corporate America when it comes to breeding students who enter the workforce with the skills they need and employers want. Because of that, the value of ongoing learning and development once they get into the workforce is escalated for this generation.

Millennials in particular are also struggling with student loan debt, and in many cases it’s prohibiting them from continuing their education. They are looking for employers to help solve for this with tuition assistance, student loan repayment, training, and other learning benefits.

Eight in 10 millennials say it’s important for them to reach the most senior level possible during their careers, so employers who can provide a culture of learning where they are truly invested in the professional development of each employee will see a return on investment in the form of recruitment and retention. In our study, more than half of millennials said they would stay longer than planned at a given job if they were learning new things or had access to learning or professional opportunities. The same amount said it would be a healthy work-life balance, which has also been well documented as being deeply appreciated by millennials.

Millennials are connecting the dots between learning and success, and employers who connect the dots between learning and retention will have a competitive advantage.

Do you think employers know all of this?

Titus: Our employer clients work with us because they know how important it is to provide their workforce with the right learning and development opportunities. With that said, we just had our annual conference where I presented on the millennials study to many employers we don’t work with and I felt like it was eye opening for many of them to hear just how critical it is to provide opportunities for learning.

What changes do you think corporate learning leaders should make to better cater to millennials?

Titus: Millennials will account for close to 50 percent of the workforce within the next five years. Corporate learning leaders need to be the champion for making professional development an organizational priority. We need to be taking educational benefits out of the last page of the employee handbook and shining a spotlight on it. In the next five to 10 years it’s going to be a key differentiator for employers who do it well.