Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

Companies work to attract, mentor millennials

Entitled, lazy and iPhone-obsessed?

Or is it ambitious, determined and tech-savvy?

You’ll hear both views of millennials as they enter the workplace in greater numbers.

Whether what you’ve heard about millennials is true or not, some employers are trying to figure out the best way to integrate the new arrivals at a critical time.

That’s because millennials — loosely defined as the 80 million people born in the 1980s and 1990s — are entering offices and factories as baby boomers — the other large group in the workplace — retire. That leaves a huge “talent gap” that has to be filled for America to remain competitive in an increasingly globalized economy.

By 2025, millennials are expected to represent about 75 percent of the nation’s workforce.

The issue is becoming a greater focus for some metro-Atlanta companies, which are using employee groups, mentorship programs and different recruiting strategies to address it.

Without attention to the issue, “boomers are going to leave with all your knowledge,” said Crystal Kadakia, an Atlanta workplace consultant who is herself a millennial. And, “your millennials are not going to stay around because you’re not engaging them.”

It’s not just a matter of keeping employees happy. Millennials, like many younger workers before them, have a higher turnover rate than the workforce as a whole, and employers are eager to figure out the best ways to attract them and get them to stay.

Yet many millennials encounter a culture clash in the workplace.

“The first thing that automatically comes up is the rolling of the eyes — ‘Oh, they’re so entitled. Oh, they’re just going to leave in a few years,’” Kadakia said.

Workplace experts say working together across generations cannot only keep employees happier, but it also helps experienced workers pass on their wealth of knowledge as they retire.

Inside the corporate walls

With all of those issues arising, Sandy Springs-based UPS just started an employee group for millennials, a group the company says is one of the largest segments of its workforce.

At AT&T, a major employer in metro Atlanta, the company is changing the way it recruits employees and using mentorship programs to try to attract and retain millennials.

When recruiting potential employees, AT&T in recent years has started “presenting a more transparent and less glossy view of the job,” said Jen Terry, director of talent acquisition for the company.

“Boomers were more into, ‘Tell us why and show us the shiny stuff.’” Terry said. “Millennials, they’ve always had information at their fingertips, so they’re a little suspect of more of the shiny information.”

Instead of promoting only the positives of a job, AT&T says job descriptions tell more about the impact of a role, rather than just the responsibilities, duties and requirements, Terry said.

And a few years ago, the company started an employee resource group targeted at millennials, called OxyGen, which has 13,000 members, including about 1,300 in metro Atlanta.

Tackling turnover

A group of Atlanta employees started the OxyGen group when they saw that many young people joining the firm were leaving.

“It’s easy to come into a big company like AT&T and get lost,” said Eartha Petersen, who joined the company right out of college and turns 30 this year. Too many times, “people would come in and get so ingrained in just what they did, and do it well, but eventually leave the company because they weren’t connected to a broader purpose.”

Whether it’s youthful idealism or an actual generational shift, Petersen said millennials’ loyalty rests on the question, “Is there something at this company that makes me feel like I’m adding to the greater good?” To answer that, the company tells employees more about how their role fits into the broader context, and it offers programs like community service.

Yet there’s still a perception that millennials start a job and expect to move up or move on after just a year.

“I hear from my leaders, ‘Can you make sure that they’re not going to come in for 12 months and then look to move somewhere else?’” Petersen said. Patience and political savvy may be what’s missing, which has to be learned along the way, she said.

Corporate world vs startups

But sometimes, there’s little a company can do to keep an employee who is in search of something different. Some millennials may be attracted to smaller outfits with a startup mentality, “where it’s easier to get around [barriers], it’s easier to get things done,” Petersen said.

“We’re such a huge company, we have to have barriers,” said Petersen, a manager at AT&T’s Midtown office whose team designs apps for its U-verse service. “We can’t go publish anything we want, because we have to worry about our brand. That can be a turnoff for some millennials.”

An Atlanta Regional Commission study released earlier this year found that millennials have an “entrepreneurial orientation.” And while metro Atlanta has Fortune 500 firms like Coca-Cola and Home Depot, several millennials interviewed in the study think the region is “losing ground on the newest round of business innovation and start-ups.”

“One of those we interviewed worried that, if Atlanta doesn’t create a better environment for start-ups, it will lose the most talented and educated millennials,” the report said.

The ARC is now planning to start a millennials advisory committee, to “listen more to the aspirations and dreams and challenges that they think we have as a region, so that our planning will be more informed for a metro Atlanta that they will like and want to live in,” said ARC director Doug Hooker. “If they don’t get the lifestyle they want,” education and tech skills will enable them to find a job elsewhere or get a position not tied to a particular location, he said.

Confronting stereotypes

But for now, the bright-eyed, ambitious young adults who arrive in a corporate office, like many generations before them that careened into adulthood, sometimes draw a wary eye or weary sigh from more experienced workers.

Millennials are the first generation to grow up with the Internet, to inhabit the world of social media so early in life, and to come of age in the post-Sept. 11 era.

Many have watched their parents go through the economic turmoil of the Great Recession. Some may have seen a parent lose a job after decades at a company. They’ve also witnessed the historic collapse of the housing market, along with the decline of pensions and the transformation of the health care system — all of which may shift their expectations of their careers and their attitudes toward work-life balance.

AT&T offers training for employees called Generations in Action, which focuses on how generational differences may influence communication styles.

“What you may perceive as entitled, I may perceive as confident, and neither one of us is wholly wrong,” AT&T’s Terry said.

Yet, Kadakia also says she has encountered instances “where I could see why people have issues with millennials, like learning to present yourself in a professional manner.” She has seen some consistently show up late or looking at their devices instead of listening to a presentation.

“The ability to focus on topics was definitely lacking,” she said.

Terry said the AT&T OxyGen employee group and mentorships help younger workers to learn from older colleagues, and “it’s also reciprocal.”

She proudly recounts how she taught an older colleague in his 70s how to use social media. She wanted to introduce him to someone at another company and said, “Oh, just ‘link in’ with them.” But he didn’t have a LinkedIn account, so “I helped build a profile.”

Then, he launched into Facebook on his own.

“Pretty soon, I get this friend request” from him, Terry said. “A lot of times, it’s more about introduction than education.”

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