There are many assumptions about what millennials want from a workplace, but those assumptions may be misguided. MDM recently conducted a survey of students in industrial distribution programs at three universities about what they’re looking for in a workplace. This article examines some of the misconceptions and how distributors can adapt to the younger workforce.
While millennials are already in your workforce, myths about what makes them different from previous generations abound. When asked about their top concerns around hiring and developing the younger workforce, distributors often say: “They’re willing to jump ship for just a few dollars more,” or “They want to be CEO in six months.”
But much of the conflict between distributors and the younger generation isn’t the result of millennials’ unreasonable expectations, according to Dr. Barry Lawrence, program director of the industrial distribution program at Texas A&M University. “Students have got it more than 80 percent right,” he says. “We as an industry need to change and change quickly.”
While the remaining 20 percent of students’ issues do include unreasonable career expectations, that may have less to do with generational differences and more to do with maturity and experience.
“If you look back at 22-year-old Evan, what I wanted probably was much different than today,” says Evan Vestal, industry projects and recruiting coordinator for the industrial distribution program at Texas A&M University. “They change, their expectations change from when they’re freshmen to when they graduate to when they’re working.”
While the overall expectations might be similar across generations, there are still some distinct differences in how millennials prioritize some of those expectations.
Working vs. learning
When it came to entering the workforce, baby boomers “wanted a car and some samples. That was it. It was, ‘Let me go do my thing,’” Lawrence says. By the mid-90s, people were looking for some additional training.
Millennials, on the other hand, are looking for lifelong learning and development; a one-and-done training class isn’t enough. It’s not necessarily about getting to be vice president in two years. Rather it’s having a clearly defined and developed path and process for getting there.
“I don’t want to be stuck in the warehouse for two or three years still waiting for a chance,” says Bryan Geiser, a senior in the ID program at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. “That’s not really why most of us go into this program.”
It’s discouraging when there isn’t clear communication about how to earn that spot, he says.
Where some companies get in trouble is that formal training stops after the first year or two, Lawrence says. They provide product training up front and they may bring in speakers or host a seminar once in a while, but it’s not enough to engage a learning-driven generation.
“If you want to be a pure commodity seller that fights for the lowest price, fine, do that. But be honest with yourself and be honest about the type of worker you need,” he says. If you want to be value-add, that requires a higher skill level, and that in turn needs an engaged workforce that can look at the problems and think differently about how to address them, not just focus on doing the same things better.
When they start to feel like there isn’t anything more to learn at one place, millennials start looking elsewhere, Lawrence says, and that’s where employers lose them.
Millennials are not unwilling to work hard and put time into learning and advancement, but they believe time should not be the primary factor for promotion. According to a survey conducted by MDM of students at industrial distribution and supply chain management programs at three universities (UNK, Texas A&M and the University of Colorado Boulder), most students believe that merit should play a larger role than tenure.
“I understand advancement takes time and sometimes a little luck on the proper job becoming open, so (I expect to be) rewarded for good work, even if there isn’t a higher level to achieve at that time,” a University of Colorado student noted in the survey. “Tenure is nice when it comes to time off and things like that, but everyone has something to offer and being looked down upon or not being able to do a presentation of the work you’ve done because you’re too low of a level worker to present your own work is extremely frustrating.”
Millennials don’t just want to be told to do something, “they want to know why. They want to know the reasons for doing something,” says Brenda Jochum, internship coordinator for the ID program at UNK. They want to know about the expectations management has for them and they want
to know about future opportunities.
“My plan is to work as hard as I can and knock on as many opportunity doors as I can. After being with a company for 10 years, I would expect to be promoted by that time,” says Tayler Kelsoe, a student in the ID program at Texas A&M. “Or at the very least, I would expect to have been given several opportunities to increase my salary and responsibilities.”
Benefits vs. pay
Pay is important for keeping any quality employee, but the perception that millennials are willing to jump ship for a few dollars more often misses the mark. Benefits and perks play a critical role in the decision, as well, but today’s students think far more holistically about their compensation packages.
In the MDM survey, students were asked what benefits they expect from a company. About two-thirds of respondents placed health insurance at the top of the list, by far the most important. (See Figure 1.)
“(Health benefits) is definitely something that would help sway me from one company to another when choosing who to work for,” says Weslie Kliment, a junior in the ID program at the UNK.
Other benefits listed include dental insurance, 401(k) matching and training.
For many students, they’ve never had to pay for their normal living expenses on a day-to-day basis, so they’re just starting to figure out what that actually means for them.
“I don’t really know what to expect just yet (when it comes to salary). I just don’t know,” Kliment says. “But I know I want something that will grow throughout the years.”
In addition to strict benefits, salary expectations can be offset by subsidizing daily expenses. “If they’re willing to pay for part of my phone or for me using my car to make sales calls – I think about all of that too because those are things I will have to pay for,” Geiser says.
Monetary compensation also plays a role in how they view their value at a company, with commission viewed as a reward for hard work. “There’s no reason to punish a salesman for doing his/her job effectively,” a student from Texas A&M said.
Time away is time away
Another important benefit for millennials is time away from work. It’s not just saying that vacation or paid time off is included, it’s actually allowing employees to feel like they can use it. In a recent study by GfK, “Project: Time Off,” nearly half of working millennials believe it’s a good thing to be seen as a “work martyr” by their bosses, significantly more than baby boomer or Gen X respondents.
“When millennials landed jobs, they brought with them a strong desire to prove themselves, intensified by the often long and painful search that preceded their first day,” “Project: Time Off” notes.
They feel pressured to forgo vacations in order to get ahead, but at the same time, they’re not happy with that and would like an opportunity to change it. “I don’t want to be a slave to a job week in and week out,” a student from Texas A&M said in the MDM survey.
For many students, the ability to spend time with the families they already have or are planning to
have is critically important to them.
“I’m very active and I like to be able to get away on weekends,” Geiser says. “Even starting out it would be nice to have at least a week of vacation days that you can use. … I want to be able to spend time with my family, and it’s important to be able to take off and do those things.”
Vacation and time away also “helps people recover while away from the stress of work,” noted another Texas A&M student.
Culture is king
Distributors place a high value on the culture of their companies, so it should be no surprise that millennials looking to work there also do. “People want to work in a nice place with nice people,” UNK’s Jochum says. “I want that too.”
Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents said a bad company culture would be a deal breaker for them.
And one of the most important parts of company culture for millennials is feeling like they’re a part of the company and not just another disposable employee.
They want to feel supported as they grow with the company. “I want my managers to provide constructive criticism, not just yell when something is wrong,” Kliment says. “I want to feel respected by the management team.”
Another student from Texas A&M agreed: “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to improve. Millennials can handle ‘no.’ I would rather be told that I was doing something wrong so that I can work towards doing it correctly and learn as a human being than get fired.”
But for many distributors this can be a challenge, Lawrence says. They’re faced with change and they don’t know how to address it. Instead of clinging to the old roles, they need to have younger workers be aware and involved.
“Millennials thrive on change and they expect fast change,” he says. They understand continuous improvement and disruptive growth patterns – things distributors are dealing with today. Distributors need to recognize the value and foster engagement with these employees. “They aren’t just future salespeople; they’re the future CEOs.”
Employers aren’t the only ones with concerns about millennials in the workforce; millennials have their own concerns.
One critical concern is the ability to get into a company on the right path – and it’s a real issue, according to Lawrence. Texas A&M offers companies access to its “Talent Incubator,” where the companies pay the program’s top students to undertake research and development projects.
“Almost every year, there’s a student that comes to me and says they were told they would have a job at that company, but that they can’t get to the right person at the company and they’re getting the runaround,” Lawrence says. The problem is that too many distributors, particularly smaller ones, don’t have an effective human resources process in place.
“I’ve had to call and tell them that they’re on the verge of losing the student they’ve already invested so much time in because of it,” he says.
Another key concern is diversity, particularly with women. The majority of female respondents to the survey said they were concerned that they wouldn’t be respected by the companies they go to work for because of their gender.
“I do plan on being in managerial roles in my career and I can imagine it would be tough to take on that role in a male-dominated industry,” Kelsoe says. “To address this concern I am working on thickening my own skin. Managing a group of men will require thick skin and a brave face.”
But that shouldn’t necessarily have to be the case.
“It may not be management’s intention at all,” Lawrence says. “They may think they’re doing a good job, but then there are people down in the warehouse or the sale office making sexist comments. It creates a poor environment.”
About the Survey
MDM conducted a survey of students from industrial distribution and supply chain management programs at three universities (University of Nebraska at Kearney, Texas A&M University and the University of Colorado Boulder) about what they want – and don’t want – in a workplace. The survey was conducted online, with follow-up calls to a select group of students to get further information on their responses.