Perspectives of Millennials in the workplace

By Keith Perry, SVP & CIO at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

The idea of millennials entering the workplace is one that can create excitement or immediately evoke fear. While at a recent convention, the topic of millennials came up among a group of CIOs. The conversation seemed to take a negative slant on the generation as being entitled, difficult, needy, or lazy. I was awestruck at these broad assumptions after having had a very different experience this past summer. You see the technology department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital had just launched our first summer internship program.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

With the majority of our department consisting of what I would consider tenured or well-seasoned professionals, the idea of shaking up the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality with a bunch of 20 somethings sounded either like watching a really bad accident happen or a true learning opportunity for all involved. With careless abandon, we set forth on our journey of exploration. After selecting six intelligent, motivated millennials, we created a structured program that would allow us to learn from them and the opportunity for them to shake things up (of course there were educational learning opportunities mixed in for them as well).

Over the course of eight weeks, we observed like an anthropologist who observes its subject in the wild. We watched while some of the well-seasoned professionals kept their distance, sizing up the new kids, while others quickly encouraged the interns to join their groups. Some grew weary about the super-charged energy and the apparent lack of respect for the work environment, while others embraced the new, creative ideas and synergies that were being produced simply by having someone around that challenged the norm. Some jumped at the opportunity to teach the millennial, others shied away. At the end of the eight weeks, we had broken the norm and sent our six off into the world to finish their studies. Our work environment felt lonely for a time and certainly less noisy than it had been for weeks. Ironically, when we asked the collective what they thought of the internship program, the answer was a resounding vote of success. Those that had shied away actually enjoyed the experience, learned from it (and the interns), and are eager to welcome our next summer cohort to the team.

This was exactly the response that I had anticipated. The “would be accident” turned into a wonderful learning opportunity for a group of professionals who were content with the way things had been. As one of those seasoned professionals, it’s easy for me to understand the reluctance that a baby boomer or Gen X’er may have with the idea of working with a millennial, but what about the other side of the equation? What pressures or assumptions do the millennials have about working with us? Do they have an equally negative slant about us? With a bit of soul searching it seemed only fitting to reverse our own learning opportunity and have our millennials educate us. Our interns agreed to provide us their unbiased feedback on millennials in the workplace. We received thoughtful, insightful and reflective answers that perhaps will change your opinion of what millennials can add or help you know how to effectively engage them in the workforce.

Here’s what we discovered:

Millennials approach internships with expectancy and high-expectations. “As a generation raised with the belief that anything is achievable, millennials are typically unafraid of asking questions and challenging opportunities” shared Luke Dalton, Harding University. They also see the conundrum of having ample experience under your belt in order to land a full-time job and also being a recent graduate. Sarah Mack, Texas A&M University, commented that many millennials feel pressured into having two or more internships during their college career in order to be marketable, but found each beneficial in setting a direction for the future. “By participating in an internship, the student can get a feel for the different industries they want to work in. ”

Millennials can be engaged/challenged in a workforce of baby boomers and Gen X’ers by allowing them to challenge the status quo. According to Sarah, “millennials have a different mind and skill set due to their increased dependency on technology that previous generations were never exposed to.” They have an innate need to be interested in and learn from their environment. They must be allowed the opportunity to collaborate and challenge in the workplace.

Millennials prefer constant, direct feedback. Millennials like answers. In a generation that has access to the Web 24×7, being in the “know” is important. “Anything short of honest, direct feedback should be avoided,” said Luke. Further expounding on the need for direct, constant feedback, Jack Morrison, Rhodes College shared the sentiment “the sooner they know something needs to be adjusted, the sooner they can produce the best solution.”

Millennials feel they bring creativity and new ideas to the workplace. Millennials view themselves as the “people that do”. Students are full of creativity and the workplace simply needs to harness the ideas to drive innovation. According to Jack, “university setting is challenging students to thrive with fast-paced group think mediated by technology”. Sarah reiterated Jack’s statement by sharing “there are new innovations and new practices being taught in schools around the nation, so it is just about harnessing new ideas and putting them into practice.”

Millennials know they are being stereotyped.  Millennials are aware of the stereotype they face and feel they have an uphill climb. Sarah stated that “many feel this stereotype is due to millennials staying in school longer to obtain higher degrees, therefore entering the workforce later with less experience.” This “transition” into the real-world is often misread as entitled.

Our millennials offer the following recommendations on how you can maximize the millennial in the workforce:

  • Allocate responsibility and expect equal levels of performance from the oldest to youngest employees.
  • Be open to a developing work culture. Encourage open dialog and agile development.
  • Encourage professional growth and invest in individuals.
  • Offer mentoring opportunities.
  • Provide millennials the opportunity to surpass expectations.
  • Listen.

Millennials, like other generations that challenged the norm, are simply misunderstood. Instead of stereotyping, we should accept their challenges and shake off the dust. Life is a journey of learning and discovery. What better way to challenge the norm than to surround ourselves with the leaders of tomorrow today.