Unleash Millennials with Learning

Maximize the moment, and don’t fret longevity.

co_0109_lead_302Say what you want about millennials, but they are quickly determining how the world lives, plays, communicates and works. The workforce reality looks different for this cohort. Companies can’t guarantee employees career-long job security, and workers aren’t dedicating their entire career to one organization. Millennials — the largest generation in the U.S. labor force — are free agents in a fast-moving market.

Members of this age group, who typically change jobs at least four times in their first decade out of college, need and want work-based training and development. But employers often question the return on the investment because of this high turnover. So how do you develop a valuable system for both you and your employees?

The answer requires a different outlook on both millennials and learning. Here are a few tips to maximize both their and our company’s success.

  1. Millennials care a lot about their learning and development. Millennials value training over other benefits including bonuses and flexible working hours. In 2015, retired Deloitte CEO Barry Salzberg put it simply: “When looking at their career goals, today’s millennials are just as interested in how a business develops its people … as they are in its products and profits.”

It’s not just a response by the so-called “me generation” to invest in themselves rather than a firm’s future. It’s a rational reaction to an uncertain and rapidly changing job market. Take the engineers at Coursera [Editor’s note: The author works for Coursera] — they are coding in languages that didn’t exist five years ago. Millennials were raised during a time of rapid technological and cultural change, and they must continue to develop transferable skills to stay competitive today and invest in their futures.

  1. Discover and invest in their long-term goals. How does management harness this eagerness to learn? Effective professional development for millennials starts with managers understanding their career goals. Climbing the corporate ladder isn’t necessarily a motivator for millennials. Maybe they ultimately want to start their own company or move from marketing into product. Their current job is a step along the way, and an effective manager identifies where their employees’ personal goals and business goals overlap. As Reid Hoffman says in his book “The Alliance”: “The notion of a career ladder is broken … you need to look at your career like an entrepreneur looks at building a company.”

Give employees a sense of control. They’ll work harder, be more motivated — and ultimately get their team better results.

  1. Create clear pathways for learning and mobility. That feeling of control also stems from the mutual understanding of how employees will get from Point A to Point B. The tricky part? Millennials’ career goals aren’t necessarily linear, so gaining skills for lateral transitions can be appealing.

Consider the company’s needs, and create multiple pathways for employees to fill those needs. Instead of mandating training and development along defined corporate career ladders, create multiple learning pathways for employees to advance in their careers, or move into new job functions. AT&T is a great example of how it’s done. With a workforce 280,000 people strong, many of whom got their training and education in a different era, the company faced two options to survive: reskill or find new people to fill the rapidly changing positions needed for the business. The company chose the former and is reinventing its workforce in a way that keeps employees ahead of the rapid innovations in their industry.

  1. Invest in their whole selves. Don’t limit those pathways — the most valuable learning experiences can come from surprising places. When I was a manager at Google, my direct report took advantage of a Google Kitchen apprenticeship program through the company. Each week she spent an hour or two shadowing the head chef at one of Google’s cafeterias. She didn’t learn hard skills for her current job, but she saw the company was invested in her as a person, and she further invested herself in the company and in her job.

Access to learning opportunities that go beyond an employee’s productive skills is an opportunity to show that the company cares about the employee’s whole self. That translates into employee satisfaction, commitment and job retention.

  1. Accept that retention is not the end goal. The biggest — and often most difficult — shift for companies is acknowledging that retention isn’t the only end game. Millennials will change jobs many times over the course of their careers. If they’re not going to be at your company forever, the relevant questions are: What is their impact while they’re there? How do they reinforce your employer brand when they leave?

Julia Stiglitz is vice president of Coursera for Business at Coursera. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.