How Much Should You Invest in Young Talent?


Investing in Generation Y seems obvious and necessary — after all, aren’t they the future? But many companies are reluctant to make these learning investments.

According to a survey by consulting company Accenture, 75 percent of graduates in 2013 said they expected to receive formal training at their post-graduation positions, but only 48 percent of graduates from the two previous years reported being formally trained in their first jobs.

Employers’ hesitancy to spend large amounts of time and money on their young talent likely stems from the fear that any investment will be wasted when the restless millennial inevitably switches jobs. It’s not entirely unfounded reasoning.

“Millennials only stay at a company for about two years,” said Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and consulting firm, and author of “Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success.” Schawbel has conducted many studies on trends in youngtalent, including 2013’s “The Cost of Millennial Retention.” Of the companies surveyed for that report, about a third lost at least 15 percent of their youngest employees the previous year.

The reason young people are constantly switching jobs goes beyond impatience with old-fashioned workplaces, however. “Oftentimes, they find the work is not very challenging, or not very interesting, or not very meaningful,” said Tammy Erickson of Tammy Erickson Associates, an author and researcher who studies employee engagement and changing workforce and demographic trends. “So they move on to look for something that’s more challenging and meaningful.”

In other words, those who move around the most are typically the highest-performing employees, the ones who want to make the biggest impact. According to startup maven and “The New American Dream” author Penelope Trunk, the learning curve practically flatlines after two years at the same job. Therefore, “the only people who stay at a job for a long time are people who don’t want to keep learning: low performers.”

Movement is inevitable. While it can be difficult trying to retain young, driven workers, employers should keep in mind the quickest-moving millennials often produce the highest return on investment.

“High performers feel urgency to make high impact very quickly in a job,” Trunk said. “So if you have somebody with a heavily bulleted résumé, it’s a decent bet they’ll give you high ROI before they leave.”

Therefore, retaining millennials shouldn’t necessarilybe the employers’ main focus. Instead, the most beneficial thing an employer can do is accept the youngsters’ impermanence and focus on developing successful strategies to invest in and engage Generation Y.

After all, “Millennials make up 36 percent of the workforce this year, and 12.5 percent of them are already managers,” Schawbel said. “Companies need to get serious about this.”

Work Smart
Not only do young people comprise a significant portion of the workforce, but also they may be the key to solving problems in a rapidly evolving, increasingly tech-focused world.

“It makes a great deal of sense to invest in Generation Y not only from a perspective of having talented people, but also of having fresh eyes and people who understand the needs of the younger marketplace,” Erickson said.

Erica Dhawan, a leadership and innovation strategist focused on millennials and founder and CEO of Cotential, a consultancy, said the hyperconnectivity Generation Y is used to has created more ways for them to create breakthroughs on some big business challenges.

For example, Dhawan said a few years ago a leading law firm noticed its youngest employees were billing fewer hours, even though they were assigned more work. The firm soon learned the millennials had constructed their own network on Twitter to help each other solve cases faster. The community rapidly became so productive it was actually saving money.

It’s imperative for employers to figure out how to work with this generation, take advantage of their expertise in connectivity and then use it to get the best business results, whether through social technologies like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn or other mediums.

“We have to ask how we can work in a radically different way across generations to drive profits, products and innovations,” Dhawan said. “And when we reframe the question to be about solving business challenges, millennials get engaged.”

Thus, investing in young talent doesn’t necessarily mean providing them with traditional, formal training. Great results can come from assigning millennials work that’s both challenging and meaningful.

Erickson said employees must understand the importance of the work they’re doing, as well as how it relates to the company’s mission as a whole. They also should be given the opportunity to shape their own work. “Even when it comes to relatively routine tasks, the company might ask the Gen Y to think about how to do it more efficiently or how to redesign the process. In other words, add an element of challenge to make the routine task that much more significant.”

Technology also can be used to harness millennials’ innovation and creativity and increase engagement. AT&T has adapted its employee learning systems to tech-savvy millennials’ needs and interests. Its Virtual Management Summit, a program for front-line managers, delivers curriculum through a combination of live and virtual webcasts around the globe.

This type of technology-based program can both engage young talent and prove they can keep up with a rapidly changing business environment. “We’re grounding employees in our culture and our values, while also providing them with those functional skills that are necessary for them to remain relevant and to contribute to our evolving landscape,” said Julie Bugala, vice president of talent management at AT&T.

Learning leaders also can use gamification, which often offers some level of competitive play, and other types of contests to boost millennial engagement. “Millennials want to have influence, and designing problems in the form of contests or games excites and engages them by providing an opportunity to gain influence and be recognized for their achievements in a public space,” Dhawan said.

Global cosmetics company L’Oreal has been recognized for its ability to attract and retain millennial employees. Some of the company’s most successful engagement programs are contest-based learning activities. It has used its international marketing competition Brandstorm to engage and develop new talent for the past 22 years. Sumita Banerjee, vice president of talent acquisition at L’Oreal USA, said Brandstorm challenges undergrads to create a marketing strategy for a new product launch, from product formulation to packaging to digital components, exactly as if they were L’Oreal brand managers.

Earlier this year, L’Oreal launched an intern competition, the Summer Intern Beauty Shaker Awards, designed to elicit innovative thinking from interns across America. During the competition, students presented beauty product ideas to company executives.

“It’s imperative for us to invest in the next generation of diverse men and women who can inspire us with their insights, push the boundaries of our innovation and make an impact on our business,” Banerjee said.

Mentoring programs also can increase employee engagement. Partnering young talent with older, more experienced workers and encouraging a dialogue about career paths and workplace strategies can be beneficial for employees of all generations.

Dhawan said these effects are common not only in traditional mentoring and reverse-mentoring groups, but in sparring groups, where millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers don’t just mentor each other, they have courageous conversations about different ways to solve problems and create better solutions.

Using these methods to invest in Gen Y extends beyond traditional, formal learning. “Training today is all about mentoring strengths and weaknesses, and assisting in career development to help people create a path for themselves,” Trunk said.

Focus on Engagement
Qualcomm Inc. was named the “Best Gen Y Employer” in a PayScale report. According to the report, of the 35 percent of its employees who are Gen Y, 87 percent had high job satisfaction and 72 percent felt their work was meaningful. The company has taken advantage of its Gen Y employees’ various assets by developing a strategy of engagement that encompasses all of the aforementioned methods and promotes continued learning throughout an employee’s career.

Qualcomm also relies heavily on technology to keep up with its large millennial population. Rita Buffington, the company’s senior director of learning, said a substantial use of technology, especially mobile technology, to engage younger learners is an overarching learning theme at the company.

Its mentoring program, Qualcomm Journey, employs user-generated content to help employees get a sense of what their careers might look like. Millennials conduct video interviews with company leaders about their careers, then post the videos to the Qualcomm Journey site to be shared with the community.

The company recently launched a learning site featuring a social aspect similar to Qualcomm Journey but with a strong sense of competition. Employees create their own learning paths, recommend and share paths with others and rate each other’s paths. Buffington said through the recommendations, the best, most relevant learning rises to the top.

Specific programs featuring competition and mentorship have helped the company invest in young talent, but Qualcomm’s underlying focus on keeping these employees engaged through meaningful and challenging work and learning opportunities has generated the most success for the company. “These new learners come to us with very high expectations of what corporate learning looks like,” Buffington said. “So we’re shifting from a static approach to formal training to a very dynamic, mobile-driven approach to lifelong learning.”

Millennials’ constant movement isn’t going to slow down anytime soon. Rather than turning their backs on young talent, thinking, “They’re just going to leave anyway!” employers need to embrace this quality as a mark of motivated and challenge-driven employees and develop strategies to engage these workers as much as possible.

“The kind of work that’s being done today requires intellectual engagement — employees really have to put their heart and soul into it,” Erickson said. “It requires investment on the part of the company to get people feeling that way and to get the best results from them.”

This article originally appeared in Diversity Executive's sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.