Meeting the Demands of Millennial Talent

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Not too long ago, I asked, somewhat rhetorically, if we could stop whining about millennials. It’s pretty clear that I think the correct answer is “yes, we can, and we should,” but that doesn’t mean we need to stop talking about millennials. Instead, I think a topical shift is in order: rather than bemoan how different millennials are from past generations, we need to start a new conversation about how we’re going to prepare the workplace for our new talent.

The point is that the time for hand wringing and good-old-days fallacies is over. According to Deloitte, we have about a decade before millennials make up 75 percent of the global workforce. Now is the time for planning – for figuring out what millennial talent wants from the workplace and how we’re going to give it to them.

What Makes Millennials Different?

“I’d say the number one thing about millennials [that differs from their predecessors] is the fact that they are so relationship-oriented,” says Lisa Orrell, author, speaker, leadership coach, and “generations relations and leadership expert.”

Orrell explains: “They like close ties with their bosses. They like close ties with their coworkers. They want to communicate often.”

PwC’s millennials survey found that the majority of millennials (59 percent) would deliberately seek out employers whose values matched their own, a preference that speaks to the millennial thirst for close, personal relationships. Similarly, a study conducted by MTV found that 80 percent of millennials wanted regular feedback and recognition, with 50 percent of millennials wanting feedback at least once a week.

Orrell says the millennial desire for communication often comes as a surprise to their supervisors, who are usually baby boomers or members of generation X – two sets of people with totally different approaches to workplace relationships.

“You can imagine, when I’m doing a seminar for middle managers, and I share that fact, I have an entire room of people go, ‘Oh my god!’” Orrell says. “The older generations grew up thinking, ‘I don’t care if I talk to my boss even once a week! I just want to do my work and be left alone!’”

But millennials, Orrell says, “are like, ‘No, I want to communicate a lot, and I want to communicate often.’”

Deloitte’s millennial survey, tellingly titled “Big Demands and High Expectations,” found that millennials want to see businesses do more to address social issues like income inequality (49 percent of those surveyed said businesses should do something about that) and climate change (55 percent listed climate change as an important company concern, too). Millennials want to see companies foster innovative thinking (78 percent), as well as help them grow into successful leaders (50 percent believe that organizations can “do more to develop future leaders”).

Millennials may want a lot out of the workplace, but we really can’t avoid giving it to them. As Orrell points out, milllennials have no qualms about walking away from businesses that don’t meet their needs. “If millenials do not feel like they’re being heard or respected, they’re more apt to leave sooner, whereas older generations will put up with a boss who’s a jerk for a lot longer,” Orrell says.

The research supports her conclusion: PwC found that, over time, millennials have grown increasingly comfortable with the prospect of job hopping, perhaps accounting for their willingness to walk. In 2008, 75 percent of millennials expected to have between two and five employers in their lifetime. In just three short years, that number plummeted to 54 percent, while the number of millennials who expected to have six or more employers jumped from 10 percent to more than 25 percent in the same time frame.

The millennials’ predecessors were vastly different in this regard. By and large, previous generations had an “as-long-as-I-get-paid” mentality: you don’t have to love your boss, or even like them, as long as you get your paycheck.

“What a boomer or gen X-er might put up with for 5-10 years, a millennial might put up with for 5-10 weeks or 5-10 months,” Orrell says. “Their tolerance level is much lower.”

The Key to Recruiting and Retaining Millennials

So, the millennials come bearing a laundry list of demands – as is the case during any generational shift, really – and organizations can’t ignore them. Millennial talent is ready, willing, and able to go elsewhere if their needs aren’t met. So what to do? How to recruit and retain a millennial workforce?

The key, Orrell says, is training.

“Because of the generational shifts going on today, with massive amounts of boomers aging out, millennials are getting moved into leadership roles at a much younger age, much sooner, than the generations before them, just out of necessity,” Orrell explains.

But, overwhelmingly, millenials do not feel that they are being trained well enough by their companies: again, half of them believe that organizations are not doing enough to develop future leaders.

“The millennials really want training and development,” Orrell says.

PwC found that personal learning and development are “the most essential benefits” that millennials want from employers, more essential, even, than cash rewards. Over 50 percent of millennials in PwC’s survey named “opportunities for career progression” the No. 1 most attractive quality an employer can have – again, beating out paychecks.

In short, the kids don’t want money – they want to learn.

“Millennials are telling you what they want. This is the first generation ever, really, putting a priority on training and development and becoming better career-wise,” Orrell says. “Generation X was like, ‘I don’t want to go to leadership seminars. I don’t want to go to workshops like that. I know what I’m doing.’ Millennials are like, ‘No, I want it.’”

Through training opportunities, organizations can give millennials most of what they want: workshops fostering innovation; seminars on corporate responsibility and tackling social issues; mentoring programs for regular feedback, communication, and relationship building.

It’s important that millennials feel well-trained and that their needs are met. “They are our future leaders, and companies are not training them as well as they should be,” Orrell says.

But don’t think training and on-the-job learning opportunities are only good for the youngsters. “There’s no downside for anyone to have more clarity and self-awareness,” says Orrell.

Read more in Culture Change

Matthew Kosinski is the former managing editor of