Keep them engaged – how three employers work with Generation Y-ers

Tara Craig finds out how a large UK charity with a scientific remit ensures its high-minded employees are also fulfilled in their work and how top graduate employer Pricewaterhouse Coopers sustains its attraction for the latest generation. Meanwhile Nick Paton dons combat fatigues to discover the US Army’s secret weapon.

More Generation Y articles

Cancer Research UK

Generation Y has a great deal to say about “wanting to give something back”, but is this just hyperbole, or are they actually picking charities over the corporate sector and opting for a financially poorer but more fulfilling work life?

For many people, working for a large charity strikes the perfect balance, offering a clear career path while providing a sense of having made a difference. Cancer Research UK has a staff of 4,000 and a further 4,000 funded scientists, and says it is “training the next generation of cancer scientists and doctors”. Two-thirds of its staff have a science remit, and the remaining third within its corporate functions, 1,000 of them in its shops. The charity’s vision is ‘Together we will beat cancer’, and its goals include reducing cancer in low-income communities and among the under-75s.

The charity, which sits at 48th place in the Times Top 100 Graduate Employers list for 2007/08, takes on a maximum of 14 graduate trainees a year. Unusually, not all of them are from Generation Y, with separate provision for PhD students, who are invited to join the charity’s research institutes in London or Cambridge.

Age-wise, there is an even spread across the organisation, and staff from different generations work together as a matter of course. The post-retirement age group is especially well represented, within both the scientific and retail functions.

The charity runs two graduate training schemes, one focusing on fundraising, marketing and communications, and the other on corporate and scientific services, including HR, finance, IS and research support. Each programme lasts two years, and is made up of four, six-month long placements, each of them in a different role. While Cancer Research UK prides itself on giving trainees a great deal of support, taking their needs into consideration when planning programmes, it expects them to know what they need and be prepared to take responsibility for their own learning and development plans. They are encouraged to network and to create projects for themselves.


Trainees are attracted to the scheme by the carefully developed combination of autonomy and support. Graduates are assigned a mentor on arrival. Aimed primarily at easing the transition from academia to the workplace, this also helps them to get to grips with a large, complex organisation. They also have the support of the graduate programme manager and, when on placement, a line manager.

As with many other organisations, Cancer Research UK has seen its Generation Y recruits put social networking to good use. While the charity sees it as a good PR tool, it has evolved into a powerful means of communication for younger staff. Interns use MySpace, while graduate trainees have their own Facebook group. They use this to communicate not only with each other, but also with the subsequent intake of trainees.

As part of its policy of recruiting self-starters, Cancer Research UK facilitates a week-long get-together for current and existing trainees, then sits back and lets them develop working relationships. This means incoming trainees can have their questions about work and office practice answered and, when they start work, will know who to turn to with questions and concerns. On completion of the programme, graduates are encouraged to maintain relationships with ‘classmates’ by joining an action learning set.

Graduate input

The charity has seen significant input from its graduates. One played a huge part in a recent procurement review, saving the organisation a considerable sum of money. Another, on its environment team, has made a big impact in terms of getting the environment high on everyone’s agenda. Graduates are involved in all Cancer Research UK’s big campaigns, and have been particularly successful in attracting leading scientists to events.

The charity believes it has been successful with its younger recruits because of the support it is able to give them. The number of trainees taken on each year depends on the quality of the applicants and what work is available for them, but the intake numbers are deliberately kept small so that each trainee receives the attention they need. Retention rates are high, with trainees tending to stay three or four years after completing the programme. Its graduates can be seen across the organisation, in a variety of roles and levels.


Professional services firm PwC, top of the Times Top 100 Graduate Employers for the past four years, has 15,000 partners and staff in offices across the UK. It is a young firm: about half its staff are under 35 and a third are under 27. It recruits 1,000 graduates each year.

At PwC, Generation Y’ers are primarily found in the manager and senior manager brackets, although the firm recently appointed a 31-year-old partner, and is keen to make this the rule rather than the exception. The average age of partners is 45.

PwC predicts that over the next three to five years, the remaining ‘baby boomers’ will retire and the make-up of the partnership will look very different. So being able to work across the generations is critical. The firm is keen to identify potential directors and even partners as early as possible, and to accelerate their development. To that end, it has implemented a number of talent-related programmes for younger staff.

Tailored programmes

On the academic side is the PwC business diploma, a three-year modular course with an externally recognised qualification from London Business School. On the more practical side is the emerging leaders programme (ELP). This draws on the theme of linking younger emerging talent with the big business decisions they will ultimately be making. Participants become involved with projects run by colleagues up to board level, and experience plenty of exposure to senior groups.

For the next level, still within Generation Y, PwC has developed the ‘signature’ programme, which focuses on senior managers who have the potential to make it as director or partner. This is a rigorous process but offers huge developmental opportunities, giving people significant insight into their own strengths and weaknesses. This indicates a growing trend towards more self reflection, and development around human characteristics rather than hard skills. PwC’s director of organisation and people development Mick Holbrook says: “Whether it’s driven by Generation Y or the other way around, I don’t know, but they’re all part of a zeitgeist.”

PwC has also recognised a change in the psychological contract staff have with their careers. With previous generations, such as baby boomers and Generation X, the contract was simple, says Holbrook.

“You come to work, you get your qualifications, you work your socks off, we pay you well, and if you work your socks off, there’s a chance that you’ll become a partner in future.” But while there remains a core of graduates who still have that contract in mind, there are a significant number of Generation Y employees who see things differently.

They think “maybe partnership is something I aspire to, but maybe there are or will be more important things in my life”. In response, PwC is working to generate a different set of career options. It is working to improve work-life balance, and to accommodate the different lifestyles of its staff, whether it be family life or voluntary work. The firm also encourages career breaks. One member of the HR department is taking a year off to sail across the Atlantic with her father.

The firm operates a fluid structure, and any project will involve staff from across the generations. Senior managers, typically in their late 20s and early 30s, have always acted as a bridge between managers and directors or partners, and graduate joiners are assigned a senior manager as a career coach. This relationship is intended to go beyond conventional coaching, and to help new staff look at how they are learning and developing. The company encourages staff to seek out senior mentors, while one department has implemented a successful reverse mentoring scheme.

This is not the only instance of senior staff learning from junior colleagues. As the ELP has grown in stature, its participants have come to be regarded as a representative group of young people to whom partners will turn for input.


PwC has been fast to harness Generation Y’s much feted technological skills. They use Lotus Sametime software for instant messaging, and are exploring the use of social networking technology, with a global account team piloting a ‘Facebook for business’ style project – using it to share information and to keep clients up to date.

While PwC is happy to acknowledge that Generation Y employees see things differently, the company insists its core values and beliefs are stable regardless of generations. Other than flexibility about how people work, it says it can’t make exceptions for different generations and stresses that it expects the same behavioural standards from a 22 year old as from a 52 year old.

US Army

It’s a common complaint among parents – their offspring shut themselves away for hours on end playing those dreadful computer games, and ask how is that ever going to help them get a job, writes Nick Paton? Yet spending hours on the Xbox, Wii or PlayStation may be exactly the sort of activity employers will want to see on a CV in future. Employers are increasingly recognising that the skills Generation Y job seekers gain through online and computer gaming can be of benefit within the modern workplace.

One organisation that has been pioneering this approach is the US army, which has, since 2002, used an online game called America’s Army to target new recruits. On a smaller scale, the UK’s GCHQ intelligence gathering centre ran a recruitment campaign last year where posters appeared in scenes of various different games.

The America’s Army site works at a number of levels. First, it’s simply a game, and a highly popular one, with more than 8.8 million registered players. But, with the US army needing to recruit some 80,000 people a year merely to keep pace with an annual turnover rate of 20%, the game has been specifically positioned as a recruitment tool.

It sets out to simulate many aspects of being a soldier, with players needing to follow the army’s rules of engagement and exhibit behaviours associated with professional soldiery, such as loyalty and courage.

There’s also a strong emphasis on teamwork. Gamers are required to work in tandem with other players and win points for achieving objectives, eliminating enemies or rescuing injured team-mates. Players are free to act as they want to but if, for example, they decide to shoot their drill sergeant, they get thrown into a virtual prison and have to start again.

Intriguingly, the actual recruitment side of the game is relatively indirect. Players can opt-in to receive army information when they register, but do not have to, and only then are they contacted. Otherwise there is no direct marketing or communication.

There is, however, a link to the army’s official website and to various blogs, forums and discussion groups that allow players to communicate with army members or veterans, who are identified with a star against their screen name.

So, does it work? The US army admits it has no real idea, and says that it would be almost impossible to find out how many people have joined up as a direct cause of playing the game. But it says it has plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest there’s a link, even though the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have left it struggling to meet enlistment quotas.

It also points to its own research suggesting that those who participate in the game tournaments it runs at recruiting events or who play regularly are 40% more likely to be interested in the army as a career. New recruits who have played also generally do better in, for example, basic training than those who have not, perhaps because they have a better idea of what to expect.

“Forward-thinking HR leaders are already using games and virtual worlds as a venue for training, especially factual training,” says Jonathan Winter of consultancy Career Innovation, who has studied the US army’s experience closely.

“Increasingly games will be used as a way to deliver soft-skills development too. Virtual worlds already allow customer service staff to take part in role-play, without the time and cost of travelling to a central training venue,” he adds.

Paul Judge, president of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Association of Graduate Recruiters in July, also argues that employers could tap into the collaborative and cognitive skills that gamers develop.

He cites World of Warcraft, a game where players can work with other players, who may be half-way around the world (much like a remote or virtual team), to collaborate on tasks such as raiding dungeons.

For the US army there is also a more direct link between gaming and its activities, admittedly one that is perhaps less likely to be relevant to most mainstream employers.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq it has made extensive use of unmanned drones, which are often piloted from bases as far away as Arizona using controls based on the Xbox 360 console. What’s more, operators need to build up the stamina to be able to do an eight-hour shift at a time.

But whether that will convince parents as to the benefit of their son or daughter spending the whole day on a console in their room is a moot point.

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