When I graduated from university in the late 80’s jobs were hard to come by – even with a technical degree. You had to get experience wherever you could. I knew when I graduated that the easiest way to find a job was to work through the campus recruiters, but I ended up moving to Japan and doing some backpack traveling for a few years instead.
While I was in Japan I worked in a translating company that specialized in technical documentation. I checked and corrected Japanese product/service manuals and research papers that were translated by native Japanese speakers. I read all kinds of things: scientific papers on the effects of electromagnetism on cockroaches, recommendations on which potatoes to plant in SE Asia to prevent famine, computer user manuals, and lots and lots of documentation about tool die casting equipment. I’m talking tool die specifications, product installation, service manuals and marketing brochures. Did I say a lot? There were so many tool die casting manufacturers in Japan at the time. Tool die casting was not sexy, but it was my big opportunity to get some technical experience that I could take back to The States when I was ready to turn in my backpack for a real job.
I want to be clear – I knew at the time I set out to travel that I needed real experience, and that I needed to work hard to build a good career. I was never terribly interested in tool die casting, but I sucked it up and learned about it anyway. Did that experience end up helping me get a job when I got back home? Of course it did!
I have to say that I get a little crazy these days over all of the stereotypes I have been hearing in the media about Gen Y. I recently read that millennials have an air of entitlement and that they don’t want to work hard. I don’t think these complaints about the younger generation workforce are new. I am pretty sure that the gray-bearded middle-aged man I worked for when I was starting my career in the late 80’s thought the exact thing about me! So I’m just not buying the millennials-are-whiners hype.
There have always been generation gaps in the workplace and there always will be. I really appreciate a recent HBR blog by Dan Schawbel entitled, “You’re Probably Wrong About Millennials.” His advice is simple. “The first step is to drop the generational stereotypes and give Gen Y employees a chance to prove themselves.”
I think today’s leaders need to make sure they are reaching out to connect with Gen Y employees and finding ways Gen Y employees can prove themselves.
Are millennials going to be just like you? No. So don’t expect them to be. I had so very little in common with the gray-bearded boss, except we both wanted what was best for the company. He needed to get projects done and I was willing to work myself to near mononucleosis. That’s a win-win.
So what’s different now? I needed the gray-bearded boss in order to get information about the company, to learn the industry and to get the skills I needed to do my job. Today, new employees have employee intranet portals, employee forums, external industry forums and blogs, social networks and search engines to look up anything they don’t know. Use of technology is instinctive. They don’t depend on their managers and 3-ring binder manuals for basic information.
Do you think Gen Y employees know the value of experience earned through hard work? I certainly did when I entered the workforce, so give them a little credit. I am pretty sure they know that real work experience (even if it is in something as dull as tool die casting – or whatever today’s equivalent is) will help them build relationships and open up new paths and opportunities.
So what can you offer? You can role model leadership, real leadership, by sharing your company’s vision, providing insights and context based on your experience. You can start pulling millennials into the process – you need their input (Gen Y are most likely becoming a large part of your customer base) and they know how to collaborate. I am pretty sure you will surely learn a lot by working with them.
For me personally, I’m going to make more investments in engaging with Gen Y whenever I can. I am willing to mentor and to learn myself. After all, it’s really an investment in future of my company – and my future. I want Gen Y to be successful and ramp faster than I ever did.
Current leaders: If you aren’t already doing this, it’s time to mentor a millennial employee.
Gen Y: Don’t be afraid to reach out to one of the leaders in your office. Ask them to mentor. Ask them to help you get the experience you know you need to prove yourself and add value. And I hope you find someone as wonderful as my gray-bearded boss.