A New Hope: Small Business Guide To Millennial Workers

About the Author: Ashley Thomson
Ashley Thomson

If your small business is like most in Australia, it is quite likely that you employ staff spanning at least a few generations currently active in the Australian workforce. Baby boomers, Gen X, Gen Y (also known as Millennials) and Gen Z are all employable age; so why do I mentor my small business coaching clients to focus their efforts on attracting and retaining Millennials?

Why you should be courting “Generation Me”

Previously considered over-educated, over-confident and under-experienced, you’ve probably heard the horror stories of recent graduates waltzing in and expecting to run the place. ‘Lazy and selfish’ has been the reputation that Gen Y has been working hard to shift.

It seems that this hard work is starting to pay off. Optimistic, career-focused, socially aware, tech-savvy, ambitious, flexible, creative problem solvers, adaptable and entrepreneurial. These are the words people are now using to describe this generation as it matures. All great reasons you should find out what makes them tick, attract them to your business and keep them there.

The numbers you can’t ignore

In just two years’ time, Millennials will account for over half the Australian workforce (this will rise to 75% by 2025). They will soon represent the largest talent pool your business is fishing in. You want be sure you are using the right bait so you can reel ‘em in!

This won’t be enough, however. Millennials are not known for their loyalty, with most moving on after 2-4 years. Your business success will in some ways depend on your ability to hold their attention; if you cannot retain staff in your small business, it becomes very heavily reliant on the owner and that can stagnate your growth. Don’t worry – I’ve got a few coaching strategies for retention up my sleeve that’ll have you covered.

But first…

Who are they?

The agreed dates are a bit blurry (depending on who you ask) but to give you a vague idea, Millennials were born somewhere between the early 80s and late 90s.

The social and economic conditions Millennials have been raised in have engendered an expectation of having what is termed a Protean Career. This is basically where your career path is driven by the individual, rather than the organisation you work for. Millennials believe in skills security, rather than job security. When you consider the current predictions of the casualisation and automation of the future workforce, placing your career focus on yourself as a ‘saleable product’ doesn’t seem quite so ‘selfish’… it actually seems pretty spot-on.

Far from ‘lazy’, Millennials are more likely to do work outside of office hours, enjoying the flexibility that technology can afford them. Those who don’t spend their evenings and weekends on unpaid overtime can often be found satisfying their entrepreneurial spirit by running a ‘side-hustle’; a weekend photography business, a micro-brewery or some other hobby-turned-second income (leave it to Gen Y to ‘re-brand’ the idea of a second job!).

How to bait your hook

For small business owners who want to land the best talent this generation has to offer, a bigger pay packet isn’t going to cut it. You may be surprised to learn that a significant portion of Millennials won’t even apply for a job if they can’t get behind what you do and would even take a pay-cut to work in a role where they feel that they are making an impact.

As a career-driven group, they know they will be investing a lot of time in your business, so they want to feel good about working there. When you are recruiting, make sure that you emphasise the contribution your business makes to your community, as well as any environmental and social impact programs that you have implemented.

Related article: 7 stage series on recruiting the best of the best

Your small business will also have to offer a fun, positive team-driven culture. Millennials prefer a flat corporate structure, with lots of communication and feedback. They like to have the sense that information and ideas are shared and valued across all levels of your company.

How to stop them jumping back in the pool

Keeping a talented Millennial on your payroll will depend on your ability to appeal to three key Gen Y values by:

1) Offering development opportunities

Millennials see their career as an exercise in personal development, rather than financial security. This is the key to keeping them around. There are a few ways you can offer this:

Mentorship: Millennials will be looking to your senior management for mentorship. This can be something as low-key a regular lunch-time discussion where a senior team member presents some aspect of their expertise to the rest of the group.

Another idea may be to link-up team members with someone in a role that offers them a new skillset – match an apprentice with a senior salesperson, a receptionist with your finance officer… it certainly can’t hurt your team to understand what the rest of their workmates are up to in your business.

Personal Development Program (PDP): Part of good leadership is identifying and nurturing talent in your team members. Talk to them about their career aspirations and how you can work together to help them reach their potential, both professionally and as a personal. Formalise the process and implement a Personal Development Program (PDP) at the start of each year. Write down development goals including behavioural (eg improve communication skills), performance-based (increase sales by a certain percentage) or educational (take an online course relating to their goals). Make a time later in the year to meet up and discuss their progress.

External Training: You can make great use of online courses, which are often a low-cost, high benefit investment for your small business. Millennials are comfortable with online learning – it appeals to their love of technology and flexibility. Also consider giving your staff a choice in what courses they pursue – this makes it clear that you are investing in them as an individual because you value their contribution. Consider investing in a company subscription to SkillShare, a learning platform with online classes taught by the world’s best practitioners including Simon Sinek, Gary V (he’s, like, supes pops with The Youth entrepreneurs), Rand Fishkin, and Jeff Staples.

Step up: If a more senior staff member (by that I mean senior in position, not necessarily age) is taking leave for a couple of weeks or longer, offer your younger team members a chance to step into the role. This gives them the chance to ‘step up’ in a supported way and review their skillset, clarifying the areas they need to work on to move through the ranks in your business. It is a real win-win, where you can offer them a development opportunity and reduce costs of backfilling the senior position.

2) Promoting true work/life balance

We’ve touched on the importance of work/life balance in keeping your staff healthy (link to previous blog). It is also vital to your Millennial retention strategy.

Gen Y know that they will need to be working well into their old age, so the ability to build a lifestyle supportive career is important to them. They sense that they cannot afford to put life off until retirement, they need to be ticking things off their bucket list as they go.

Technology offers a lot of flexibility in work hours and location; squeezing extra hours into your train commute, work-from-home days, the ability to attend appointments and make up the hours later from home… If your business model allows for these possibilities, it will go a long way towards staff satisfaction and loyalty.

3) Embracing (and leveraging) their entrepreneurial spirit

By encouraging your team members to identify, pitch and implement ideas for improving your small business, you may be able to satisfy (and make good use of) your Millennial’s entrepreneurial tendencies.

Make sure you also show that you value their input on new strategies – an open, non-judgemental and supportive attitude from management will help draw out your team’s creative problem-solving ideas. Hold regular brainstorming sessions and turn these into personal projects and goals.

The future is here…

The way we work is quickly shifting, influenced by ever-changing technology, social and economic factors and the personalities of the people who make up the workforce itself. The ability to adapt is crucial to your success as a small business owner. Millennials are the workforce of the future, so knowing how to attract, lead and retain them should be a priority for any business that wants to thrive (not just survive) now and in the future. Younger team members may have their quirks, but with the right development and leadership, they’ll prove to be an asset in your business.