Unlocking the talent of Generation Y

The head of public affairs for the Chartered Management Institute examines the demands made of today's younger managers, debunks the myths surrounding them and gives clues about how organisations can attract and retain Generation Y.

'Self absorbed', 'impatient', and 'disloyal' are just some of the words used to describe Generation Y, or managers under the age of 35, in opinion leader columns and management articles.

But how much truth is there behind what has fast become a commonly held opinion about younger managers? Whether this view is true or not, the fact remains that engineering organisations need to find ways of engaging Generation Y if they want to be successful in the longer-term.

Shattering the myths

A report published recently by the Chartered Management Institute and Ordnance Survey, explores the views, needs and values of today's younger managers whose attention employers need to capture if they want to deliver innovation and long-term growth.

The figures show that contrary to the stereotype often attributed to Generation Y, this group is focused on developing their skills, progressing in their career and giving something back to society through their work.

Like the Baby Boomers and Generation X, Generation Y is characterised by its own unique place in history and brings its own set of experiences to the workplace. They also bring their own set of aspirations to the world of work, both in terms of development and career progression.

Until now, much of the commentary around Generation Y has been anecdotal. The Institute's study sought both quantitative and qualitative evidence by exploring the
views of young managers in the workplace and those who will be entering it in the next three years.

I want it now

The findings show that, contrary to the idea that Generation Y is the 'I want it, and I want it now' age bracket, many individuals in this generation are more driven by the opportunity to build new skills, competencies and cross-functional experiences. The figures show 51 per cent of young managers in the engineering sector saying that they are looking for the chance to develop new skills and 46 per cent saying they are focused on career prospects and expect support from their employer as a matter of course.

The emphasis on development and progression should be recognised by engineering organisations if employers want to be successful with Generation Y. Clearly this does not mean that everyone under the age of 35 should be regularly promoted in order to retain them. Nor should they be able to demand any form of training whether it is relevant to the business or not. This approach is not sustainable in the long-term. But progression doesn't have to be linear. Young managers in the sector are looking to stretch themselves, with one in three citing challenge of the job as the most important motivating factor behind their career decisions.

With this in mind, organisations could consider options such as project work or cross-functional activities to attract young talent, keep them motivated and help them develop the transferable skills that they are looking for.

In many ways, it is surprising that the 'I want it now' attitude has become so closely associated with Generation Y when young people are focused on developing skills that will benefit the engineering sector in the longer-term.

In the Institute's research, 41 per cent of young mangers claim that development opportunities have a major influence on career decisions and almost two-thirds have a personal development plan in place. These statistics indicate not only that young managers are more self-directed when it comes to their learning and personal development, but they are also more aware of how to be successful in the long-term.

Developing new skills is not going to get you promoted tomorrow, but will go towards building a strong portfolio which, combined with experience and qualifications, will stand individuals in good stead to achieving their ambitions.

In terms of future thinking, the research findings also reflect wider research by the Institute looking at the value that individuals place on qualifications. Most, it appears, focus on the idea of qualification as a 'career passport'. The report shows that the majority (85 per cent) of younger managers think the effort of studying is worthwhile, because qualifications will improve their chances of employment in the future.

Sixty-nine per cent also said that doing management qualifications improved their promotion prospects. Again, these statistics reinforce the notion that contrary to being focused on the here and now, Generation Y is most interested in development and progression.

In an era where skills shortages are posing challenges to organisations across the sector, Generation Y's commitment to long-term success and development should be welcome news to employers. It is, therefore, a significant worry when this year's National Management Salary Survey reveals that many employers readily admit that they do not provide the training and development opportunities that young managers want.

It seems that although organisations recognise they are losing young talent by failing to give them the opportunity to learn, they are still not doing enough to rectify this problem.

What's in it for me?

The myth that Generation Y is selfish and self-indulgent has also been debunked by the Institute's report.

The figures show that today's younger managers are driven by ethics and a sense of purpose. Asked if they 'would quit their job tomorrow' if they won the lottery, only 2 per cent strongly agreed with the statement. Just 7 per cent agreed that there is 'no point being excessively loyal to an organisation'. Both these figures suggest that young managers are looking beyond the pay and incentives they receive, although clearly these are important, to the wider benefits of doing something challenging and inspiring.
Indeed, an overwhelming majority (90 per cent) went further to disprove the myth by saying they only 'want to work for an organisation that does something I believe in'. More than half also stated that they 'would only work for organisations with strong values'.

It is clear that employers have to start recognising that new entrants to the job market view a job as a lifestyle choice. They won't work for an organisation just because the balance sheet is a healthy shade of black and they certainly don't want their CV to be littered with brands that don't reflect their environmental or social concerns.

In return for their commitment, talented young managers are demanding strong values and behaviours from the organisation and they will stay so long as they feel those are being met. The onus is then squarely set on employers to live up to the values they describe and the promises made during the recruitment process.

Taken a step further, and we can see that the traditional approach to interviewing, where prospective employers seek a 'personality fit' between the interviewee and the incumbent team members, is no longer the full picture. Now, it is just as often the other way around, with potential recruits researching and questioning an employer's values and ethics before making decisions on roles.

Although it may seem that organisations promote responsible actions and behaviours with the intention of attracting new customers, this activity is just as important to the recruitment process when it comes to younger managers. After all, externally facing sources, such as the corporate website or media coverage, is often the first port of call for prospective employees. If organisations can promote their values through these avenues they are more likely to attract individuals with a vested interest in aligning their beliefs to their choice of career.

If an organisation wants to recruit and retain the best young talent, employers must ensure their brand values are easily identifiable and lived within
the organisation.

Shy of commitment?

The Institute's research also puts a question mark over the idea that the young are lazy and uncommitted. In the report, over a third of young engineers said they have been in their current job for three years or more and 70 per cent believe they will still be with their current employer in one year's time.

If there were any truth in the idea that managers under the age of 35 were work-shy, why are almost one-third of this group prepared to work in the evenings? And why does a similar proportion (37 per cent) work during their weekends? The figures clearly show that there is no lack of commitment from Generation Y managers in the sector.

The point is that there are plenty of young managers prepared to work extremely hard, but only if they feel valued by their employer and they are being given challenging work. The majority will put in extra effort if they believe recognition will follow - though research suggests this only seems to happen in a minority of organisations. It raises questions about what we believe recognition to be. It is not about throwing more money at top talent, as only 7 per cent in the sector rated pay as a very important factor when deciding on their current organisation. Employers should be focusing on the opportunities that can be given to help people develop.

Generation Y respondents in the Institute's research claim that they 'thrive on handling lots of tasks at once'. The majority also say that they expect to have a range of jobs throughout their career to give them a breadth of challenges, but there is no reason why these have to be with different employers. There are other ways of keeping roles fresh and challenging.

Of course, this is not an excuse to over-burden younger managers. Whereas in the recent past most employees discussed how they balanced their work and personal lives, the debate has moved on towards one of work-life integration. Generation Y sees work as an extension of who they are as an individual. Most (85 per cent) say that if they are 'allowed to be themselves at work' they will remain committed. If, however, work begins to dominate tolerance for blurred boundaries will diminish and the possibility of creating a dissatisfied workforce increases.

Unlocking the talent

It is often disconcerting to have myths shattered because it means that the belief-system we adopt needs changing.

However, in the case of young managers there is certainly cause for optimism. The fact that Generation Y wants more from their employer presents an opportunity to
boost performance and productivity.

Finding new ways to help today's younger managers develop at work and enjoy their job will be critical to getting the best out of these individuals. And that is a good thing because it will foster innovation.

Indeed, only when innovation becomes the norm will we be able to argue that standards are not falling but, rather, that new heights can be achieved.

'Generation Y: Unlocking the Talent of Young Managers', by Dr Alison Macleod, June 2008, published by Chartered Management Institute in association with Ordnance Survey. For further details see www.managers.org.uk/gen-y [new window]

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