Hire education: an emerging cohort

With competition fierce to snap up top grads, a survey of 30 thousand students shows recruiters what the new crop of employees want.

Introduction | An emerging cohort | Tug-of-war | The results | Where, why, and who? | Star recruiters

Generation Y. The millennials. The echo boom. All are terms that have been used to describe today's emerging cohort of future employees. Although there is less consensus on who qualifies as members of this group ? with most people agreeing loosely on a birth date of anywhere between 1980 and 1995 ? one thing is clear: unlike the generation that preceded them, the millennials have grown up with a much rosier outlook on both life and work. And it shows.

“They've been taught that life is going to be creative and challenging and collaborative, and that that's the way work is going to be, too,” says Claire Raines, a Denver-based generational consultant and co-author of the bestselling 1999 book Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace. “They come feeling much more positive and having a lot of high expectations for their jobs and for fair treatment.”

Unfortunately, the unbridled optimism many of these young people bring to the workplace is often misinterpreted in a negative light. So instead of being seen as keen and willing to work hard, the millennial generation is sometimes viewed as an overly arrogant bunch who have grown increasingly unrealistic about their path to the C-suites.

Not so fast, say Brainstorm's Graham Donald and D-Code's Eric Meerkamper, who help corporations and university career centres engage and harness the power of the millennial generation by understanding what makes these young people tick in the workplace. By taking a research-based approach, the pair is aiming to slowly dissect some of the stereotypes that pervade this important group.

According to From Learning to Work: Campus Recruitment Study, an online survey that polled almost 30,000 students from 143 post-secondary institutions across Canada earlier this year, the No. 1 attribute young people value most when considering full-time employment after graduation is opportunity for advancement. Other key factors include having good people to work with, good managers to report to and work-life balance. Initial salary, surprisingly, ranked only ninth on their wish list, down from its No. 7 spot when a similar survey was first conducted two years ago.

Donald, Brainstorm's president, cautions against interpreting the desire among students for promotion as a power-hungry grab for the top job. “They understand the principle of building experience and learning and developing,” he says. “They understand the notion of putting in time, contrary to the thought that they're very spoiled.”

In fact, advancing horizontally within an organization, whether it means rotating between departments, taking on more (or different) responsibilities and participating in interesting, new training programs can be equally satisfying for a generation hungry for constant change, Donald says. “Promotion ? whether it's vertical or horizontal ? is a language that they can look at and know they've excelled.”

The “people factor” is also huge, adds Meerkamper, pointing to the No. 2 and No. 3 results on the list. “It's just that this generation is very much loyal to people, as opposed to places or organizations, because they saw the contracts of lifetime employment being questioned when it came to their parents,” says the D-Code partner, whose firm published the bestselling book Chips and Pop: Decoding the Nexus Generation, in 1998. “For example, a manager might leave an organization and very shortly after, three or four people will follow them because they'll say, 'It's my team I'm working with.'”

The desire for work-life balance, which ranked fourth on the list, is also an important factor. That does not mean, however, that all students are desperate to punch out when 5 o'clock swings around. Rather, they are looking for employers who provide fluidity between work and play, so employees don't feel handcuffed by the rigidity of corporate life. Instead of cigarette breaks, for example, Meerkamper says some companies encourage scheduled “MSN Messenger breaks” that permit young employees to fire off a bunch of messages to friends, provided it doesn't interfere with their day-to-day work.

Such flexibility, and the trust relationship it underscores, is one of the things Westwind's Cho likes about working at a smaller investment boutique firm, rather than a larger bank. “One of the big draws about Westwind is they're not about face time,” he says. “In big banks, if your boss is in, you're expected to stay until your boss leaves, whereas as at Westwind, if you've done your work, you can go.”

Although it may seem like small potatoes to some employers, giving young people the flexibility to set some of their own rules (and goals) in the workplace can go a long way. Banning personal e-mails and phone calls during the day, for example, could actually backfire, particularly for a generation that has grown up communicating electronically.

According to Universum, a U.S.-based global employer branding specialist, American students value many of the same workplace attributes as their Canadian counterparts. A 2006 Universum study surveying students from both countries found top characteristics on wish lists for ideal future employers include a progressive work environment, high ethical standards, innovation and social responsibility. Camille Sautner, Universum's Canada country manager, says those study results should serve as a major wake-up call for employers when it comes to recruiting and putting their brands on display. “We really need to emphasize to employers how much of a learning curve there is out there when it comes to the millennial generation,” she says. “There does need to be some relearning in terms of their target audience, the way employers go to campus, the messages they put out there and whether they're saying the things students are interested in hearing about. The millennials are very different from the generation before them.”

Unfortunately, says Meerkamper, many companies have let their assumptions about what the millennials want ? or don't want ? guide their recruiting and hiring decisions. Lots of employers, for instance, just assume this generation isn't interested in hearing about a long-term career track at an organization because they'll probably jump ship to another firm in a couple of years. Not so, says the Brainstorm-D-Code study, which indicates half of all students surveyed would actually prefer to find a suitable company where they could spend their entire career.

Donald says another mistake many companies make is trumpeting the fact that they're No. 1 in their industry or a “leader in their field.” “Frankly, we found that many students don't care too much about the hard sell,” he says. “They're more interested in figuring out what it really feels like to work someplace.” By giving students a “taste test” of corporate life ? something that can be accomplished through internships or co-op positions–companies are much more likely to attract top-notch student talent in the long run.

Another no-no? Relying on those glossy and expensive brochures — the ones that often get handed out at job fairs or university career centres — to deliver key messages about a company. The reality, says Meerkamper, is that good old-fashioned word-of-mouth often works much more effectively. Smart companies, he adds, have figured this out by appointing student ambassadors–paid or not–that can engage in their own form of buzz marketing to help potential hires get a realistic snapshot of what it's really like to work at a particular company. In fact, Universum's Sautner says many Canadian companies are moving away from career fairs all together, preferring instead to focus on more personal, touch-point recruiting instead of overwhelming, and often impersonal, group gatherings.

It's important to be honest, too. If you expect your young associates to put in 80-hour workweeks, don't try to sell them on the fact that you offer work-life balance. Differentiate your firm on one or two key attributes, whether it's a great training program or flexibility in the workplace, and get the message out by telling effective stories through the eyes of people who actually work for you.

NEXT: Tug-of-war