August 19. 2013 9:00AM

Meet Generation Y

Your company will need to connect with the Millennials

By Molly Dill

  
Eventually, the members of Generation Y will be the customers, co-workers and supervisors of your company. That fact is demographically inevitable.
Ian Abston, president of NEWaukee and Corry Joe Biddle, executive director of FUEL Milwaukee

So, who are these people? And how will your organization engage them?

Well, they don't particularly like being put in a box. The leaders of tomorrow are a diverse and varied crowd fighting labels like "lazy," "entitled," "narcissistic" and "tech-obsessed."

While they prefer a different work style than other generations, they strongly believe theirs isn't necessarily the wrong way of doing things. Many of them favor efficient work on a flexible schedule aided by technology.

They're eager to advance in their fields and looking for mentors to help them do so. Gen Y is driven, creative and adaptable – which could all benefit your company.

Minding the gap

Each generation has nicknames, coined by those studying how different age groups have been defined by their life experiences.

The Silent Generation lived through the Great Depression and World War II, but were too young to serve in the military during the war. Most scholars agree they are now in their 70s and 80s.

The Baby Boomers are in their 50s and 60s, born during the population expansion following WWII.

Generation X includes those who are now between their 30s and 50s and spans a wide range of experiences, from the Vietnam War to the Dot-com bubble.

Generation Y refers to the "Millennials" in their 20s and 30s who were mostly born to Baby Boomers and were shaped by 9/11.

And Generation Z are those between birth and about 20, who are digital natives – they have grown up using the Internet, text messaging and mobile phones.

In some workplaces, each of these five generations is represented. Managing the different work styles of these employees can be a challenge for employers.

The key isn't managing the groups differently, but equipping them all with the same skills, said Ed Gawronski, vice president of marketing at Menomonee Falls-based Kohl's Corp. Gawronski manages an intergenerational staff that skews younger. He says he works to help them all learn leadership strategies and provides them with the resources to succeed.

Gawronski's employees work in teams, which helps bridge any generational gaps through shared experiences and goals.

Employees in their 20s and 30s tend to differ from other employees in their technological mindset, Gawronski said.

"The biggest thing is just because they've grown up with technology, they're just very technically savvy and they're just very curious about technology," he said. "They're just very networked, also. They tend to be able to have a very diverse point of view just because of their socialness."

Younger workers usually prefer urban environments, where there is a lot of action, Gawronski said. He makes them aware of events and amenities in the City of Milwaukee.

"Everyone likes to be able to focus on the difference between young and older talent, but the retention factors are always the same," he said.

Those include empowering them, making sure they enjoy their work and inspiring and motivating them, Gawronski said.

Life experiences

Generation Y has been shaped by events such as 9/11. The shift in American attitude following the event has shaped their world view.

They also grew up with a lot of positive reinforcement from involved parents, which has earned them the nickname "trophy generation." This need for feedback may transfer into the workplace, as they strive to meet employers' expectations.

"We're the generation that everyone was given a trophy, even if you didn't win at T-ball, so we kind of are trained to want that kind of validation and want to feel that everything we say is being heard," said Angela Damiani, executive director of young professional group NEWaukee and Art Milwaukee.

Most of the members of Generation Y have entered the workforce during one of the most significant economic downturns in U.S. history. Finding a job under these circumstances has been tough, and other life decisions may have fallen by the wayside as they focused on their careers.

Many Millennials are waiting longer to have children and purchase homes, and they are also changing jobs more frequently than older generations.

"I think people would be surprised to learn that Gen Y can be very loyal to their employers," said Corry Jo Biddle, executive director of FUEL Milwaukee, a young professional group affiliated with the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. "People aren't job hopping for the sake of job hopping. They're looking for an opportunity that connects them to their passions. They're looking to feel fulfilled in their work."

It's important for members of Gen Y to fit with the culture and mission of a company, not just earn a salary there. The age of transparency in social media means a company's values need to be clear to potential employees.

Ian Abston, president of NEWaukee said, "But if you're sponsoring that 5K that gets you and 10,000 people together in downtown Milwaukee, you're all wearing the same shirts, you're all with your family, you just develop an emotional connection to that brand."

Race and gender equality are also less of a concern to the younger workforce. They see each other more or less as equals, said Jamie Elder, director of the Office of Urban Development at the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.

"As a young black male, I don't have as many of racial issues as my parents did," Elder said. "The whole idea of the glass ceiling above me didn't exist. It was what's my value proposition as an individual."

Technological wonders

Technology has fundamentally changed the way employees work, especially for the digital natives in Generation Y, who grew up using computers.

"It is definitely making a difference in terms of not only what work is being done but how that work is being done," said Dorinthia Robinson, president of the Milwaukee Urban League Young Professionals. "Things that would previously take hours or days to complete can be completed in a matter of minutes or a couple of hours now."

These whiz kids might be able to find a way to get the job done more efficiently by using a different method or newer technology, she said.

"I think in order to be successful, it has to be a mixture of that wisdom and experience from the older generation and incorporating some of the new technologies that can be used to make that work more efficient," Robinson said.

Dan Fuerbringer, 25, is a specialist at Milwaukee-based Direct Supply Inc. He sees Generation Y using social media and technology not just personally, but as a business tool. Sometimes, he texts back and forth with customers or interacts with them on social media sites. He also uses sites such as Facebook and Twitter for competitive research.

"We're much more prone to using technology and I think we're exposed a little more or we seek new technologies and different ways of doing things," Fuerbringer said. "We want to bring that knowledge or insight into the workplace."

A Gen Y member might want the flexibility to show up a little later to work, but he or she will be checking work email until 1 a.m., Abston said.

Being connected all the time has blurred the line between personal and professional, Biddle said. Millennials want to be their true selves at home and at work, with no separation.

"We're not looking to make sacrifices that other generations felt they had to make, and you'll see that in social media and the way we communicate is very fluid and transparent," she said. "We're looking for meaningful experiences in life and work, and we're fine going back and forth between the two."

Companies have different expectations about social media, texting and other technologies such as instant messenger. Some require it and others ban it, said Griselda Aldrete, executive director of Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee.

"There's always that issue of how are you representing the organization and the company," she said.

Flexible mindset

Emily Vitrano is an audience development manager at Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee. She chose to work there because it fits with her passion for acting.

Vitrano, 29, worked as a professional actor for a few years and then started at Skylight in September 2012.

"I really wanted something that was a little bit steadier but I wanted to be in the field that I loved," Vitrano said.

It's a flexible workplace, one of the characteristics many young workers value. For example, Skylight, which has about 20 full-time employees, offers shortened summer hours.

"I've had the opportunity to do a number of different acting opportunities on the side, which they've been more than willing to accommodate, which is great and which is a huge part of why I love working here," Vitrano said.

One of her responsibilities is engaging new and different audiences in theater, including young professionals.

Josette Kauffeld, 28, also values flexibility in her employer, Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc.

The associate talent development consultant has worked in five different roles since she started with the company five and a half years ago.

"They've been good about letting me move around and keep it interesting, which I think speaks to our generation," Kauffeld said. "Would I have stayed if I hadn't had that diversity?"

She plans to stay put for awhile, but needed to try different roles to find the one that fit her best.

Generation Y members are impatient to move into the jobs they really want to do, with less emphasis on putting in a lot of time to advance, she said.

"I think I've recognized in a lot of individuals the need for them to feel challenged and to do what they want to be doing," Kauffeld said.

But that doesn't necessarily mean Millennials feel entitled or that they won't work hard, Fuerbringer said. They want to be given the opportunity to grow and succeed.

Collaborate and change

Adam Bartos, 24, is a human resources generalist at Badger Meter Inc., based in Brown Deer. In his role, he has interacted with several generations of employees and has pinpointed the characteristics of Generation Y.

"If I had to say it in one word, I would say progressive," Bartos said. "Young professionals like to drive change."

If a process at Badger Meter has worked in the past, young professionals sometimes question it to make sure it's still the best solution, he said.

"I think it's a common and maybe harsh stereotype that Generation Y employees can be impatient and they want to come in and shake things up," Bartos said. "I think there's some of that, but my peers and I can be patient."

What young workers really want is to join a company and make an immediate impact. They want to feel like they're making a difference, he said.

"I think we all want a job that we can feel good talking to our friends about," Bartos said. "It's much more open, and that even goes with the salary. They want to feel validated with their peer network."

Collaboration comes naturally to Generation Y, because they're used to sharing and learning in social environments online.

Dan Novak, 26, is a group sales specialist at Assurant Health, based in Milwaukee. He asks those around him about what's working for them and for their perspectives on a situation at work.

"A lot of the younger salesmen that I'm coming up with, they're around my same age and we collaborate all the time," he said. "Sometimes it's easier to reach out to somebody who's in your same demographic."

But Novak said he wants to collaborate more widely between departments, both professionally and socially.

With the right attitude, employers can harness the energy and creativity coming from Gen Y workers, Biddle said.

"They're usually a little less apprehensive to try new things and to kind of be more innovative," she said. "They're willing to think outside of the box more. That definitely plays a part in being able to advance the workplace and to have folks go above and beyond, to not only get the job done but to do it well or to do it in a way that maybe hasn't been done before but could very well be effective and efficient for an employer."

They need a guide

Elder, 31, is active in the FUEL Milwaukee group. One thing he has noticed from his time interacting with young professionals in the area: it can be tough to find a mentor.

"They recycle leadership here, and a lot of the old guard, whatever the reason may be, they don't exit on the traditional career path," Elder said. "I don't see a lot of mentoring in terms of any sort of succession plan."

He attempted to start a mentoring program between FUEL and the MMAC, with little success. At times, young professional groups can feel a little like daycare for younger workers, he said.

"Even though FUEL Milwaukee may be a component of MMAC, it's still a lower priority just because the older executive members have different priorities," Elder said. "I wish they just knew a simple way of how to make a connection with us."

Elder said he felt fortunate to have had a mentor after his father died, and advised leaders in Milwaukee to expose young workers to as many experiences as possible, like networking groups, to broaden their horizons and shape their career paths.

On the other hand, Novak said he was immediately assigned a mentor at Assurant Health, as part of the company's Senior Rep Program for salesmen.

"You get to hear the insight of different salesmen around the company and around the country, too," Novak said. "(Otherwise) you might be banging your head on your desk for a few hours, thinking, 'How can I do this?'"

It can help to call a mentor for advice on finding a solution to a challenging project, he said.

Kauffeld has multiple informal mentors in the workplace. She approached a couple of individuals she highly respected and admired, and asked if they would be willing to meet with her once a month to talk about her career and work.

Retaining young talent

Several Milwaukee organizations cater to the eager young professionals in the area, including FUEL Milwaukee, Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee, Milwaukee Urban League of Young Professionals and NEWaukee.

They offer networking, social programming, professional development and civic engagement opportunities to members.

But they also have the larger goal of retaining young talent in the area by making employees love the city they live in.

NEWaukee programming is aimed at getting young professionals to interact with their urban environment and make it their permanent home.

"They want to be around like-minded people, so whether it's same age or same mindset and people love getting behind philanthropic activities too," Abston said.

The ultimate goal of NEWaukee is to rebrand the city's national reputation through its members advocacy on social media and in personal conversation.

"We only see people that live and breathe and bleed Milwaukee," Damiani said. "How do we take that energy and export that so that we can change the national discussion of what this place is."

MULYP focuses five key areas: civic engagement and leadership, civil rights and social justice, education and youth empowerment, economic development and health and wellness.

"Our main focuses these last couple of years have been community service and most of our community service is targeted towards youth," Robinson said. "One of our kind of unspoken goals is to engage the young professional so that you're not just someone who goes to work and then goes to a club or party here or there but you're actually engaged in the community."

Operating in a bubble can make it seem like Milwaukee doesn't have much to offer, but young professional groups are working in cooperation to change that perception, Biddle said.

"The theory is that the more involved a person is in their community, the less likely they are to leave that community," she said. "Milwaukee is a very vibrant community and the regional image or perception of Milwaukee does not always reflect who we are."

HPGM is focused on growing a pool of young talent for employers to draw from, Aldrete said. They do that by getting professionals engaged in their communities and helping them learn the ropes in career advancement.

"If you get people vested in early on, they're more likely to stay here," she said. "I think Milwaukee already is great, but it can be even better if we take the time to build a pipeline of talent."

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