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Ask a Gen Y

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Generational Trait vs. Life Stage

January 25, 2013
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Ernst & Young’s Americas Director of Campus Recruiting Dan Black oversees the recruitment of more than 6,000 college students for Ernst & Young in the U.S. every year. He believes young people are the future of his business and spends his time mentoring Gen Y every day to maximize their leadership potential. I spoke with Black to find out why misconceptions about millennials bother him and what he’s doing to make sure Gen Y succeeds.

You’ve said before that you’re on a mission to debunk misconceptions about millennials. What are some of those stereotypes and why do they bother you?

There are quite a few stereotypes that have been popularly associated with millennials, primarily by members of the other generations — Gen X and baby boomers. In my opinion, the most ubiquitous among them are: A) millennials are not loyal employees; B) millennials don’t want to work hard; and C) millennials are poor communicators. What’s troublesome about these misconceptions is that, frankly, they just aren’t true. There certainly are members of Gen Y who exhibit these characteristics, but there are members of every generation that do so as well. I believe that the perceived lack of loyalty, work ethic and communication skills are more a function of the difference in age/stage of life than anything specific about this generational cohort.

I am a Gen Xer and I can remember being distinctly less articulate in my teens and 20s, a fact that my more senior co-workers were quick to point out. My career plans at that time included working at a wide array of companies and in various industries, not building a career with one company in one industry — something that I’m sure wouldn’t have sat well with my supervisors had I shared it with them. But in today’s connected environment, where opinions and views can be shared with millions of people with just one click, millennials don’t have the benefit of keeping their collective opinions to themselves.

In my experience, Gen Y is every bit as loyal and eager to succeed as previous generations, and a study commissioned by Ernst & Young validates my assertion. Our 2007 Generations survey, completed by more than 5,500 respondents, revealed some interesting findings that would likely surprise a few generational experts.

The study found that all three generations (millennials, Gen X and baby boomers) valued flexibility at work, with 67 percent of all respondents ranking this as a top benefit in an employer. There was also significant agreement — over 80 percent — among all the generations on what they felt they owed their employer, with some of the top responses being delivering top quality work, going the extra mile and making sacrifices to help the team.  And while the study did show that the generations had different preferences when it came to communication methods, the gaps were due primarily to the changes in technology that have evolved over the years, and not an inherent shortcoming of any group in particular. In fact, many of the differences can be attributed to individual or situational factors, as opposed to generational ones.

Explain your work with millennials.

As the Americas Director of Campus Recruiting for the Ernst & Young organization, I am responsible for directing member firm hiring of entry-level and intern employees in North America, South America and Israel. In 2013, this will equate to over 9,000 campus hires across 30 countries, the vast majority of whom will be millennials. The coaching process for this group begins very early on — well before students even formally apply for a position with an Ernst& Young firm. Much of what we cover isn’t very different from the topics delivered to previous generations as they started their career search, including how to write a resume, interview skills and dining etiquette. We supplement that with guidance on more contemporary topics, such as how to maintain a professional online presence and understanding how to work through unconscious biases in today’s diverse workplace. The education continues once they join the organization through our acclaimed learning platform called Ernst & Young and You (EYU). Through formal classes, coaching and diverse experiences, our employees develop technical and soft skills, business acumen and personal awareness primarily with the help of their Ernst & Young colleagues.

Another important step in the on-boarding and acclimation process is the coaching and education that takes place on the other side of the desk with our more senior employees. The successful integration of millennials into our workforce requires a two-way commitment, and Ernst & Young is widely recognized for our efforts in this space. One example is coaching our employees on the use and adoption of new technologies that are second nature to millennials and that can help us serve our clients more effectively and efficiently. Another is educating all the generations on how to best work with each other while respecting their differences. It’s important that millennials understand that wearing ear buds while the client is visiting the office might not portray our firm in the most professional light. But it’s equally important that the boomers understand that wearing those same ear buds while working independently may help millennial staff members be more focused and enhance their ability to deliver a quality product.

What kind of learning and development is Gen Y looking for?

I believe Gen Y is looking for much of the same learning and development that previous generations sought in their careers. Whether it’s technical know-how, soft skills or overall business savvy, millennials are eager to learn and are quite outspoken about their desire to develop professionally. I believe that the real change is in how millennials want to learn, as opposed to the content. This is a generation of digital natives who have grown up having the world at their fingertips, with instant access to information that is customized to their specific wants and needs. Offering them a “one size fits all” learning experience at work would have the effect of providing a “one size fits none” solution. Learning and development needs to be more real-time, more customized and more customizable. In addition to traditional classroom learning experiences, Ernst & Young offers webcasts, blogs, vlogs, and podcasts, to name a few. And it’s not just technology that is the differentiator. New programs have been created to give our employees valuable life experiences at a much earlier stage in their career. One example is our Earthwatch program, which provides an opportunity for employees with just three years of service to volunteer for an overseas assignment helping a client with their sustainability efforts.

How can learning leaders manage millennials to better their business?

I believe there are several things that learning leaders can do to more effectively integrate millennials into the workforce. First, understand that the success of the company will depend on the effective integration of this cohort into the workforce. At Ernst & Young firms, millennials are currently over 60 percent of our client-serving workforce, and this generation will continue to represent a significant portion of the workforce for decades to come. Finding ways to accommodate their learning styles, instead of finding ways to work around them, will significantly enhance your success in their integration and shorten time to productivity. Second, resist the urge to buy into the “pop psychology” around Gen Y. Good employees know when their company is harboring resentment or reluctance toward them and millennials are no exception.

Start by being overt and deliberate in your support of their unique learning needs, and work with them to develop successful learning strategies that will unlock their skills and perspectives. Conducting surveys and focus groups to understand their needs and preferences is a great place to start. Finally, treat the members of this generation as individuals, rather than a collective group. To suggest that everyone born during a specific time in history prefers to learn a certain way is as insulting as it is counterintuitive. Get to know your youngest employees and understand what challenges and motivates them as individuals. Millennials crave personalized attention and detest the thought of being “lumped in” with everyone else. Then again, who doesn’t?

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