Want to attract and retain younger talent for IT positions? Think in terms of corporate purpose, culture, and professional development. Experts explain how to retool older hiring and retention programs.
Finding, hiring, and retaining technology talent is difficult, but if you’re seeking the next generation of IT professional to replace the outgoing one, you’ve got work to do. Hiring practices and retention programs that worked in the past won’t cut it today.
“Young workers are far different from any previous generations,” says Bud Tyler, vice president at EF Precision Group, a contract manufacturer and manufacturing services provider. “It’s the problem everyone is trying to solve. I am not sure there is a way to retain them.”
A 2018 Deloitte survey supports the sentiment: Forty-three per cent of 10,455 millennial respondents (born between January 1983 and December 1994) plan to leave their job within two years; only 28 per cent plan to stay beyond five years. The 15-point gap is up from seven points from the previous year. Some 61 per cent of 644 Gen Z respondents (born between January 1995 and December 1999) say they would leave within two years if given the choice.
While generation gaps are nothing new, this up-and-coming pool of IT talent wants leaders who prove themselves as agents of change, making a positive impact on the world’s economic, environmental, and social challenges. In addition, financial rewards and benefits, a positive workplace culture, flexible working hours and location, and professional development are important.
Are companies paying attention? Some are.
The loss of “tribal knowledge” caused by looming retirements is a critical concern, says Doug Smith, CEO of petrochemicals manufacturer Texmark. He adds that attracting new, tech-savvy talent is central to solving the problem of employee turnover.
Others agree. “Companies really need to pay attention to maintaining the corporate knowledge of their retiring baby boomers,” says Eric Bloom, executive director of the IT Management and Leadership (ITML) Institute.
Rethinking hiring and retention programs
Programs that HR departments used to throw at hiring and retention—such as flashy recruitment campaigns, signing bonuses, training partnerships with local community colleges, and an extra bump when bonuses and raises are handed out—are far less likely to show effectiveness with workers in their 20s, according to the experts interviewed. The easy fixes—setting up a foosball table in the break room or offering free snacks—won’t make much of an impression on millennial and Generation Z workers who, according to the Deloitte survey, tend to be deeply suspicious of corporate values.
Younger workers may be more jaded about the corporate world and have unrealistic expectations of benefits and flexibility going into a new job, but other factors come into play, too. A strong economy means lots of businesses are competing for the same people. Well-known lifestyle or tech brands, as well as workplaces with flexible or “cool” working environments, stand a better chance of attracting young workers than high-tech jobs in more traditional industries such as insurance or manufacturing. In many industrial companies, thin operating margins limit hiring managers’ ability to offer competitive salaries and benefits packages.
One area that some employers can address is work-life balance. This might entail flexible work schedules, virtual teams, or remote work options.
“[It makes it] better for you as an employee, by increasing motivation and reducing stress. [But] if you decide to leave, it really limits the kind of companies that you can go to,” says Bloom. “Where else can you work from 10 to 6?”
Of course, not all employers can grant such flexibility, particularly in workplaces that require employees to be on-site at fixed times. In addition, not everybody wants flexible scheduling or other nice perks; they simply want a job.
“There are people who want ‘jobs’ and there are people who want ‘professions,’ and no disrespect to either one, but it’s a different mentality,” Bloom says. “There are those who come to work at 9 in the morning, and at 5 p.m. they walk out the door and don’t give two seconds’ worth of thought about work until they get back in the office the next morning. All companies need both types of people. The question is putting the right people in the right kind of job.”
Changing company culture
Executives and managers may groan at the thought of shifting company culture to accommodate younger technology talent. Culture is nebulous and hard to measure, and changing course requires soft skills that are often lacking, especially in IT and other technology-focused departments.
Nevertheless, the data shows that culture really matters to Gen Z and millennial workers. Companies really have to get it right if they are to attract and keep younger employees.
Garren Hahn, a prototype machinist in the Seattle area and an older millennial, says striving to engage and challenge them is key.
“No one wants to run 10,000 parts for a month out of a lathe with a bar feeder. Get a robot to do that,” Hahn says. “But everyone wants to play with the new robot: ‘What can we make him do? How fast can we move it? Can it pick up more than one part, five parts, 50 parts? Let’s try!’”
He adds, “Keeping the youngest members of our teams inspired and fired up is the key to maintaining any sort of place in this world, and unleashing that raw power is where our focus needs to be. Challenge the workforce to innovate the process. Give them the responsibility of making a difference. Show them how they are making an impact, and make them feel like they are important.”
Bloom also sees a positive workplace culture as a huge asset when it comes to retaining young workers. Building personal connections among co-workers is key.
“You could have a really lousy day at work, but if you were hanging out with your friends all day while you were doing it, it’s not so bad,” Bloom says. All companies should have activities that build a personal bond between people. “Also, when you hire people, consider their socialization within the group, not just their technical ability.”
Bridging the skills gap
When it comes to maintaining knowledge and skills amidst the coming wave of retirements, there are different views of how to best tackle the challenge. Formal training is an obvious solution. Deloitte’s survey data indicates that more than three-quarters of millennials and Gen Zers are receptive to different types of training, including on-the-job training and professional or self-directed learning; formal training courses provided by employers; and studies at local universities.
However, Hahn believes the focus on continuing education is hopelessly failing. Instead, management needs to enable a “dynamic and adaptive culture” to move the workforce forward, with a big emphasis on mentorship. “Mentors need to be established, and the company’s holistic knowledge of their methodologies needs to be taught and continuously updated for the life of the company,” he says.
Bloom, whose company provides IT leadership training and certification services, downplays the issue of shortages in specific technology skills, noting that market forces eventually address supply-demand imbalances.
“As new technologies come out, there’s always initially a shortage of resources that can work in that space,” Bloom says. In decades past, companies had trouble finding competent Cobol programmers or Linux administrators, but these shortages eventually faded away. Today, big data and machine learning skills are in short supply, but Bloom says he is confident the disparity will self-correct, thanks to education and new training opportunities opening up, as well as people from adjacent fields and specializations moving into the hot areas.
As for legacy technologies, Bloom believes corporate social networks can provide a platform for knowledge transfer and documentation. “In manufacturing or engineering or any area where there’s corporate knowledge, baby boomers can ‘sit behind’ the millennial and answer questions as they arise,” he says. “This also reduces the risk that people are going to make mistakes just because they haven’t been there as long and don’t know where the technology bodies are buried.”
Bloom also reports strong interest in soft skills training among his younger clients. “People in customer service and sales engineering are very interested in classes related to influence, negotiation, and internal client service. People who are project managers either inside or outside of IT, as well as scrum masters and product owners in the agile world, are very interested in classes related to leading without authority.”
Bloom ends with this: “What I find very exciting about younger Gen Xers and millennials is they want to know the ‘why.’ Not only ‘Why does this work?’ but ‘How can I use this to impact my team, my company, and my world?’”
Hiring and retention programs: Leadership lessons
- Whether it’s in the IT operations centre or on the plant floor, today’s younger employees have far different outlooks and expectations than previous generations when it comes to careers. Companies must retool their approaches to hiring and retaining them or risk getting left behind.
- Flexible scheduling or remote work options are attractive to younger talent, but figuring out the cultural pieces that keep them excited and engaged is key to retention.
- Mentorship may be an unfamiliar concept in your business. Nevertheless, it can be an effective way to develop young talent and pass along the tribal knowledge and skills of those nearing retirement.
By Ian Lamont