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Today, I attended a talk about “employing a younger workforce” and it made me think about what it felt like to be that school leaver, heading into an apprenticeship in “the real world”. I’ve never really reflected on my time in the NHS as a young HR professional, and the difficulties that come with being a millennial in an environment where the majority are baby boomers and Gen-Xer’s.
On 10th December 2012 at 8am, I remember walking into the lecture theatre, being ushered to join a queue to get my picture taken for an ID badge, nervously waiting to start my first week as a HR apprentice in a busy acute Hospital in Bristol. It was daunting and nerve wracking. I knew no-one and didn’t recognise a single face. Two days of presentations left me exhausted with so much information; evacuating a hospital in the event of a fire, safeguarding children training, information governance and manual handling. Information was coming from all directions, and fresh out of school, I couldn’t decide what to do with it all. I look back and think however much I tried to be mature and professional, I was a school kid in a room full of Doctor’s and Nurse’s just looking for reassurance; a smile, a nod, a knowing pat on the back telling you “it’s normal to feel overwhelmed”.
After 3 months in the role, I felt part of the NHS furniture. I joined the after-work drinks (albeit drinking Pepsi – I was still 17!), I was trusted to work on the weekends with little support and given free reign over one of my work areas. But no matter how much freedom I had to do the job, I really struggled to influence change. It was subtle, but I always had a sense that people couldn’t trust or believe a 17 year old might have had good ideas on how to get things done faster, leaner and more efficiently. I still believe it was my peers, not my line manager that weren’t open to the ideas. Making the apprentice feel they had achieved something was not a priority amidst the day job.
Like many millennials, I crave regular praise and feedback to know the work I’m doing is making a difference, and most importantly, that I’m doing it well. This most likely stems from regular praise and feedback from my baby boomer parents, and constantly during my education through reports, parents’ evenings etc. The absence of regular feedback and praise in the workplace was one of the hardest things to adjust to, but I have eventually learned that hearing nothing is also ‘OK’.
“You’re always chatting”, “you talk too much”, “always giggling” – three of the most frequently said things to me as an apprentice, and now as a manager. These are often seen by the ‘older’ generation as signals of distraction, lack of interest in my work, or boredom. I believe it’s my yearning to work collaboratively with different groups in teams, and the desire to build colleagues as friends. Substantial research shows these are absolutely characteristics of millennials.
I’ve had to improve as I’ve progressed in my career and needed to be seen as ‘responsible’. However, I firmly believe the best achievements are made as teams, and office set-up and the environment are key factors in ensuring it is possible. I am used to seeing big sound boards between desks and raised eyebrows across the office when I suggest a team meeting rather than just email exchanges. What I’m trying to say is that a typical trait of a millennial is still seen as an issue in the workplace.
Organisations need to catch on and be more responsive to how ‘we’ approach certain situations, break the norms and allow people to have freedom in how they work. We are in an era where we have been told we can achieve and do what we like by educational institutions, and social media has given us absolute freedom on how we express ourselves and share our frustrations. We are driven by parents that want the best for their children, and yet at the same time organisations continue to think we can be conditioned to work and act in a certain way. I’m sure this is typical of public sector organisations who have a “but we’ve always done it this way” culture, but I think it’s a wider issue that organisations just don’t know how to approach managing millennials.
I read an article today that really brought it home about what it is that makes millennials stay in an organisation; firstly as a millennial, but secondly as a recruiter. It highlighted that a company having a compelling vision is one of the most important things millennials consider when looking at jobs. We want to feel like we’re doing social good, and genuinely believe we’re contributing to the variety of social causes that are close to our hearts. It is one of the central reasons I’ve stayed within the NHS. “From the cradle to the grave” is what makes the NHS a wonderful thing, it’s free at the point of need regardless of wealth and status and helps people and their loved ones during the most vulnerable times of their lives. There is a real sense of a collective responsibility and a shared vision – to make people well, or comfortable during those later days. It matters not whether you’re the cleaner, the receptionist or the doctor. At 23, the stigma that millennials “don’t stick at anything” still haunts me. The perception is that youngsters don’t commit, and when the going gets tough, they leg it – but flip the coin – are your millennials leaving because they don’t believe the organisation in which they work in satisfies those needs to help society? Has their psychological contract with you been broken through seeing things they fundamentally don’t believe in and runs counter to their strong moral compass?
Curiosity killed the cat – the proverb used to warn of the dangers in unnecessary investigation or experimentation. One thing I can say I definitely am, is curious. I’m excited to learn new skills, be part of change and innovation, and ultimately be nosey. It goes hand in hand with millennials wanting to know there is a future for them. Unlike what the research states about baby-boomers wanting a steady job, we always want to know what our next step is, and where the knowledge and experiences are coming from to get there. Just look at the billions of pounds of student debt millennials are willing to take on in order to expand their minds. It’s vital that employers keep up with and exploit this curiosity and provide millennials with access to “critical experiences” rather than a simple ladder to the top – like Pepsi Co currently in their career development programs. The end result will be a creative and dynamic business that is growing with society.
My curiosity often got me the nickname of “butterfly” from a former manager, after always wanting to go to the next thing to learn as much as I could, at times to the detriment of the more menial tasks I’d try to leave behind. This manager – who I think gets the whole millennial thing – referred to me as a sponge, always wanting information, not only to store, but to put to good use and make something of it. He realised that having a team of millennials came with what he would sometimes describe as problems whilst realising millennials go a long way in bringing innovation and a technological spin to the department, challenging the norms and always asking questions, that to others could seem as passive aggressive but to us, was us just simply wanting to understand before suggesting a potential other way to doing said task.
In conclusion, attracting and retaining talented employees is one of the biggest components of running a successful business. In order to attract talented millennial employees, business leaders will need to foster an environment that is fun, stimulating and innovative. Creating a mission statement geared toward solving social issues perhaps through technological innovation and training managers to provide regular and personalised feedback can be good ways to motivate and retain millennials.
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