Employers get wise with Gen Y

Employers are facing the unprecedented challenge of managing an inter-generational workforce, where up to five generations now operate under one roof.

Nelson business coach, speaker and "millennial" Johnny O'Donnell, who talked about "Getting a Grip on Gen Y" at the Nelson Tasman Chamber of Commerce Aspire conference in Nelson recently, said the changing nature of the workforce meant that for the first time in history, up to five generations of employees worked together.

A show of hands from the 150 business leaders who attended Aspire at the Rutherford Hotel revealed most employed staff from across all age groups and more than half the room had staff under 30.

O'Donnell said an inter-generational workforce caused conflict for an employer, particularly when confronted with the "pressure cooker age of entitlement" Gen Y members.

He described them as "entrepreneurial" and "impatient for action and leadership", which was why many left a job after six months to a year.

The adjectives flowed thick and fast when O'Donnell asked business leaders to describe Gen Y employees. They ranged from "needy, cocky, collaborative" to "confident, brilliant and entitled".

They were also described as "connected, impatient, distracted, loyal, lacking life skills, environmentally aware, tech dependent, social, less motivated".

On the plus side they were described as more culturally accepting, wanted more meaningful work, had high expectations, were bilingual, were more global and experimental.

"This is the picture we've created about Gen Y but how they talk about themselves is different," O'Donnell said.

Those in Gen Y saw themselves as innovative, family oriented, lifestyle focused, ambitious, team players, confident and action oriented.

He said research into Gen Y trends showed the biggest struggle for employers was that they were "not hanging around long enough" and that had ramifications for Nelson.

In the next 10 years Gen Y was expected to make up 75 per cent of the workforce and 70 per cent now rejected what traditional business had to offer, O'Donnell said. That meant many were starting their own businesses, and the scene was "going to get a whole lot more competitive".

There were now more chief executives around the world under 30 than ever before.

O'Donnell said the "perfect marriage" for a company was bringing together Gen Y and older generations, but conceded companies needed to cater to younger employees better.

Nelson's Cawthron Institute, which had a staff that ranged in age from 15 to 85, said the generation gap was perhaps less apparent in a science field where mentoring was valued.

Chief executive Charles Eason said it was "the norm" for well-established senior scientists to mentor a graduate just starting out with a PhD or a lesser degree, and who had not yet practised.

"Scientists work in teams very effectively. When you get a team of people all working on something together it's a great advantage.

"I see our staff at morning tea all getting on well together."

Eason said the Cawthron was also "quite comfortable and pleased" to be able to hang on to those scientists who wanted to stay on. "We value their skills."

Nelson Pine Industries managing director Murray Sturgeon believed a bigger issue facing employers was the lack of retirement age now.

"We're seeing people stay at work longer because there's no longer a retirement age."

Sturgeon, who was aged "north of 70", was a classic example. He said the company had a less than 2 per cent staff turnover, and an average employee age of 50.

"We only employ three or four people a year. We take on apprentices in the technical fields but one of the disadvantages of having a stable workforce is that you don't get the opportunity to develop or promote people within the organisation."

Sturgeon said the young people coming into the business were "very smart".

"I have a lot of confidence in the youth of today."

O'Donnell said many businesses were missing a huge opportunity to employ Gen Y.

"They want meaningful and purposeful work; workplace culture is more important in this generation than any other."

Former Air Nelson customer services manager James Hamilton, who is now the manager of Summerset in the Sun retirement village and who has employed more than 2000 people over his long career in human resources, said he enjoyed Gen Y - people who were "refreshing, challenging and fun to deal with".

Hamilton, who had staff at the village aged from 18 to past retirement age, had developed a strong instinct for sifting personality types, traits of which were the same in a 65-year-old as a younger person.

He said Gen Y staff were more bold with their requests.

"You know what they're thinking - they tell you. It takes the guesswork out of being an employer."

Hamilton said the one thing he had learned in all the years he had employed staff was that "you can teach anything, but you can't teach attitude".

O'Donnell said challenges around managing Gen Y stemmed from the culture in which they had grown up, in which praise and recognition was readily dished out. Traditional workplace structures made them a "cog in the machine".

"Traditional management is a dying sport. Young people have a huge resistance to authority.

"You learn etiquette and manners when dealing with the Chinese, for example, why not think about that in terms of generations?"

O'Donnell encouraged employers to break down departmental environments and encourage workers to operate across a broader spectrum of the business.

He said everyone was better off working when they were inspired, and it was better to measure staff on their results, not their methods. "Partner up with young people - it's the smartest thing you can do."

The Nelson Mail