How to Retain Your Millennials (and Why You Should Care)

July 31, 2013

How to Retain Millennials: HR’s Next Imminent Crisis

In the next few years, the US economy will be hit by a double whammy: 1) The loss of millions of boomers from the ranks of the workforce, and 2) The scramble to fill their gaps with millennials.

This is a succession pipeline issue that’s naturally a generational issue as well – especially given that millennials are well known for changing jobs frequently - or at least more frequently than Generation X or Baby Boomers. The obvious next question is how to retain millennials once they're in your company.

While it is a generational issue, it's well worth looking at it from a different perspective. In the past several years, the American media, both HR-related and otherwise, has made a much bigger deal of the generational aspect than is probably actually warranted.

This has driven a fear of what exactly millennials are, along with a fear of what that elusive definition means for the future of America. If there’s going to be a discussion of millennials in the HR sphere, it needs to be much simpler. But in order to do so, a division must be accepted:

  • Those who entered the job market pre-2008 recession
  • Those who entered the job market post-2008 recession
  • Simply talking about “millennials” or “Generation Y” as a homogeneous group won’t do. The generally accepted definition of “millennials” is a date range: either people born from 1980-2000, or people who entered the workforce in 2000 or after. These ranges span anywhere from 13 to 20 years – 13 to 20 years of some of the most developmentally accelerated years in human history, with one of the worst economic disasters in recent history right in the middle of them.

    Currently, when HR professionals discuss millennials in general, they tend to mean those individuals who are most currently relevant to them: that is, post-recession millennials who have only recently joined the workforce.

    Jobs are scarce post-recession, especially for recent grads without the experience to compete. Even when millennials are able to find work, job security becomes a paramount concern as they labor a) against generational stereotypes, and b) to close the skills and talent gap between them and their generational elders. As a result, one of the main characteristics that has emerged in this group is a willingness to work – to work in order to demonstrate their capabilities, to work from the bottom up, to work for multiple employers.

    Notice that I did not say a desire to work for multiple employers, necessarily; but between layoffs and long strings of internships, working for more than one employer becomes a necessity for many millennials. And even for those who have skills and talent that make them desirable to multiple employers, there is still often a lack of career development and mobility options, especially compared to their ambitions to advance professionally.

    All of this comes down to millennials desiring one thing more than anything else: opportunities.

    What You Can Provide to Retain Millennials

    But what kind of opportunities? And can your organization provide them?

    There have been several articles, studies, and reports detailing what millennials want from the organizations they work for. The common high points include:

    • Work-life balance
    • Job flexibility
    • Ability to travel and work abroad
    • Desire for professional development and advancement
    • Let’s focus on that last one, because it’s arguably the key to opening the doors to all the rest. Take a look at some of the following findings:

      • 77% of HR practitioners only conduct performance reviews once a year, despite research indicating that millennials put “a high premium” on career development opportunities in the workplace. (SHRM, 2013)
      • A 2009 PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey found that 98% of millennials agreed that working with coaches and mentors is an important part of personal career development. The same report went on to recommend that organizations invest in personal development and training programs as a result. (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2009)
      • A 2012 Adecco study found that 68% of millennials identify the opportunity for learning and development as “a key professional priority”. (Adecco, 2012)

      The key here is not to focus on what you can’t offer. For example, if you don’t have offices in other countries, of course you can’t support your employees’ desires to work abroad. But you can support their desires to grow, move, and develop in other directions. Perhaps you offer coaching or mentoring, formal or informal. Or perhaps you offer access to tools, career exercises, or courses to help them grow in your organization and in their careers.

      How to Retain Your Millennials

      The next great worry is that once you’ve invested in developing your millennials, they will prove their propensity towards job-hopping and leave your organization, taking your investment in them along with their talent.

      This is the fear that drives all retention and succession planning related fears, regardless of demographic. The steps you should take toward retention are actually developmentally oriented – and are for the benefit of all employees, including, but not limited to, your millennials.

      1. Help them see how they can have a career in your organization. As I just said, this applies to all your employees, but is very particular to millennials at the same time. After all, millennials are different in this very fundamental way: they are at the beginnings of their careers. Give them access to the necessary tools and developmental activities for them to see not only where they can progress, but how they can do it.

      2. Offer developmental opportunities. These opportunities can include anything from mentoring and/or coaching to offering special projects, seminars, or access to exercises and competencies. To take it one step further, help them connect their development to their performance in your organization so that they can tangibly see their trajectory within your organization.

      3. Make opportunities for movement, advancement, and further development within the organization transparent to all employees. This is an absolute necessity for all organizations – your employees will not know where they can go within your organization unless you show them. Career mobility isn’t limited to immediate upward movement. If your employees want to explore the ways they can use their talents within your organization in different teams or areas, let them. They might just engage differently and more fully in a different role.

      The fact is this: all developmental opportunities open new doors. Those doors don’t have to lead outside of your organization. If you do have opportunities such as working abroad, in other cities, or just in a different area of the organization, make them aware of it. If you have opportunities to grow upwards, laterally, or in terms of new skills, make them aware of it. If you offer access to developmental programs that will help them reach those goals, make them aware of it.

      Otherwise, your fears of losing your investment in your recently hired millennials, along with their talent, are completely founded, and they may well move on to opportunities outside your organization that are more visible to them, collapsing your succession pipeline and leaving your organization with a lack of leadership.

      The American economy is about to be hit with a double whammy – but if you know how to retain your millennials, that doesn’t mean your organization has to be.

Read more: Why Employee Retention Is Important Even in a Recovering Economy


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