Generation Y, the iPod Generation, Thatcher’s Children or the Me-Firsts. However you categorise them, the current generation of highly ambitious yet principled university and school-leavers are both a puzzle and a pleasure for employers.
Defined by most of the UK’s graduate labour specialists as anyone born in the 1980s, the new generation of people starting work “throw up an enormous challenge to HR in terms of their retention”, says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters.
Employers report problems as diverse as hard-to-manage attitudes, lunchtime binge drinking and a simple inability to spell or add up, yet firms are still falling over themselves to recruit this fresh crop of workers.
Keeping them happy and motivated, however, is an entirely different matter. They crave a glittering career, squeaky clean business ethics, top-notch salaries and the sort of work-life balance that would have been unthinkable to their parents – a set of demands any employer will struggle to meet.
Anthony Hesketh, director of the Centre for Performance-led HR at the University of Lancaster Management School, believes today’s graduate can be a tough customer for a whole range of reasons.
“Of course these people are selfish and ambitious and no, they don’t have a concept of deferred gratification when it comes to building a career, but within two years of joining an organisation, they are worth on average two-and-a-half times their salary. That makes them a vital weapon in the war for talent,” he says.
Where many employers go wrong, he adds, is in treating graduates as one homogenous group of clones. “Organisations who want 21-year-olds to be ‘oven-ready’ and ‘flat-packed for assembly’ and who don’t invest in their development are on the wrong track. The trick is to identify different graduate types and come up with customised solutions for them.”
Hesketh believes there is a huge range of ability between bottom-tier graduates who are “frankly unemployable” and top-tier workers who are future business leaders. Between the two are sound managers and future ‘knowledge workers’, but they need handling very differently to get the best out of them.
One of the most difficult issues in the first few years of someone’s career is retention. Ford Motor Company has one of the highest employee retention rates in the industry and is prepared to go to great lengths to keep its graduates away from competitors.
“We believe in putting our money where our mouth is in terms of employee benefits, and this is particularly true when it comes to bright graduates,” says HR spokesman Oliver Rowe. “We pay well and graduates are immensely attracted by our preferential car prices for staff.”
Keeping them sweet
Ford offers a no-strings, annual £200 training allowance which can be used to learn anything from Mandarin to deep-sea fishing, and a 12-month, full-pay maternity package it believes is unrivalled in the UK. On-site crèches and what Rowe calls a “sympathetic approach” to flexible working complete the firm’s graduate-friendly benefits.
Another way to keep the Y generation motivated is early responsibility, believes Simon Woodroffe, entrepreneur and founder of the Yo! Sushi chain. “If you build a great company, bright people want to come and work for you, but it isn’t just money they’re after,” he says.
“If you give people more responsibility than their age or experience warrants, you will find that three times out of four, they will respond beautifully to the challenge and do great things, particularly if you allow them to make mistakes and learn from them.”
Sharing the fruits of your success also helps to breed loyalty. He says: “We want to do more than make money for our shareholders, and that’s attractive too.”
Honesty is best
But while setting up a profit-sharing scheme or share options may seem expensive, it costs nothing to tell the truth. This is certainly the view of Michael Nathan, manpower planning manager at John Lewis department stores. His team waded through 1,800 applications for 15 ‘fast-track’ posts last year and found that being straight with graduate recruits pays off.
“We’re upfront with our graduates from the start about what we expect of them and what they will get in return. It is very rare for a graduate to decide that things aren’t moving swiftly enough for them,” he says.
“Our fast-track programme is for a very small number of very ambitious people, and both sides get what they want out of it.”
Keep in touch
Finally, it’s important to keep in touch with how this next generation of managers will communicate. “Above all, this is the connected generation and organisations need to make adjustments,” concludes Gilleard.
Peer-to-peer technologies and social networking, driven by online communities such as MySpace, will become crucial to how this generation works in years to come, he predicts.
And whatever you think of the latest crop of school-leavers and graduates, try not to submit to the clichés. “Most of them can spell well,” says Kim Parish, chief executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management. “And sex, drugs and rock and roll are hardly the sole preserve of the young.”
Nearly new, one careful employer
Fresh graduates are all very well, but Ford Motor Company is just one of a growing number of employers that prefer new recruits who are not straight out of college.
The company’s latest strategy is to recruit graduates with two or three years’ experience to specific jobs in diesel engineering, purchasing, HR, finance and IT – while spending fewer resources on the university milk round.
It’s an approach heartily endorsed by Kim Parish, former head of HR at Scottish and Newcastle and chief executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management. She believes that many graduate recruitment schemes are unimaginative.
“In the early 1980s, I helped set up a graduate recruitment programme for 26- and 27-year-olds who were ready to settle into a career after having made a few mistakes. The retention rates among these slightly older people proved to be very good.”
She argues that there needs to be a more creative approach to recruiting the Y generation, including more management training schemes aimed at 18-year-olds who would prefer to receive their higher education and qualifications via an employer, rather than through a spell at university.
Getting it wrong
More than a third of graduate job-seekers have actively switched brand loyalty following a negative experience while job-hunting, according to recent research from HR consultancy Reed. Here are some of their key reasons:
Not hearing back from a company (66%)
No feedback being given (60%)
Job advertised now changed or no longer available (32%)
Lack of information about the organisation or role (31%)
Long delays before attending the final interview/assessment centre (22.5%)
Perception of brand had changed during application process (58%) and 93% said they would tell family and friends about their negative experience.