EY Faculty Connection - Issue 39

Generational success, fiscal cliff update

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Helping Gen Y succeed in the workplace

Portrait of Dan Black

Dan Black
Americas Director of Campus Recruiting

Educators are well aware that everyone learns differently and that students bring their own individual experiences, skills and interests to the process. Gender, culture, family background and even socioeconomic status can have an impact on a learner’s potential for success – but generational considerations also impact learning.

Employers must consider how to support Gen Y’s unique learning needs, and work with them to develop successful learning strategies that will unlock their skills and perspectives.

The process of instruction in our high schools and colleges has evolved significantly, and many of our educators are on the forefront of understanding how technology is actually changing the way Gen Y learns.

These same pioneers are incorporating technology into their instruction methods. But corporate America still has a long way to go to understand Gen Y and help them succeed after they graduate and start their careers.

As of January 2012, 60% of EY’s client-facing workforce in the Americas is Gen Y, and this year alone, Ernst & Young will hire nearly 9,000 people from campus. I work with millennials every day, and know it can be a challenge for employers to successfully integrate multi-generational teams. In order to successfully integrate millennials into the workforce, though, we have to let go of the misconceptions many have about this generation.

And those misconceptions? They really bother me. Young people are the future of our business, and they have so much to offer to employers who make a deliberate effort to understand them and create a learning culture that helps them succeed.

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. Again, 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 across all three generations in the workforce, 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% of all respondents ranking this as a top benefit in an employer. There was also significant agreement — over 80% — 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. Fact is, many of the differences can be attributed to individual or situational factors, as opposed to generational ones.

Employers who want to successfully integrate millennials into their workforce will start with onboarding and coaching. At EY, the coaching process for this group begins very early on– well before students even formally apply for a position with the 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.

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 EY is widely recognized for our efforts in this space.

When it comes to learning and development, I believe Gen Y is looking for much of the same opportunities 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.

Employers must find ways to accommodate millennial learning styles, instead of finding ways to work around them, in order to significantly enhance their success in millennial integration and shorten time to productivity. Employers also need to 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.

Employers must also be overt and deliberate in their support of Gen Y’s unique learning needs, and work with them to develop successful learning strategies that will unlock their skills and perspectives. They must also 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. Millennials crave personalized attention and detest the thought of being “lumped in” with everyone else. Then again, who doesn’t?