Turning ideals into reality
By Ryan McNutt - July 3, 2008
They may be young, but they’ve got drive and enthusiasm to spare. They grew up juggling after-school activities with busy social lives. They’ve got iPods and cell phones locked to their hip. They’ve been raised to achieve and are motivated to make an impact on the world around them. And whether you’re a “Boomer” nearing retirement or a “Gen Xer” making your way up the corporate ladder, you’d best make room. The millennials are coming to a workplace near you. Born in the 1980s and early 1990s, the millennial generation – or “generation Y” as it’s often called — is making its way through universities and out into the labour market in numbers unseen since the baby boom came of age. Instead of fighting for jobs, as was the experience of graduates in years past, there’s a good chance that the jobs will be fighting for them.
“You have to take business cycles into account, of course,” qualifies Jim McNiven, a retired professor with the School of Public Administration. “But over the long term — seven, eight, 10 years — there will be real competition for these people, which is totally different than in the past.”
The reason: a labour shortage that has significant implications for Canada’s economy. Like most developed countries, Canada’s birth rate is below replacement. “This may be the first year where more people end up leaving the workforce than entering it,” Dr. McNiven points out.
He’s crunched the numbers and concludes Nova Scotia will likely run out of available labour needed to continue its current rate of economic growth in 2015, a mere seven years away. This “zero point” varies across the country — Quebec and Ontario will likely hit it sooner, the Prairie provinces later — but it’s a national problem.
The possible solutions to this looming crisis—which include encouraging immigration, raising participation rates and increasing productivity — don’t preclude the role millennials will play in the changing economy. Employers desperate for talent will be working hard to recruit millennials into key roles alongside up to three other generations of workers.
This poses challenges for employers and employees alike. Kirby Nickerson graduated two years ago from Engineering and had the opportunity to stay in Nova Scotia to work with Michelin. While his various co-op experiences prepared him well for his technician’s job, there was a learning curve when it came to integrating with coworkers significantly older and more experienced than him.
“As a young engineer coming in, it took a fair amount of time to prove myself,” he says. “I’m here to help and improve the company, sure, but I also know that there’s a lot to be gained in learning from my coworkers’ experience.”
Companies are working hard to figure out strategies to best integrate millennials like Mr. Nickerson into their workforces, explains Adwoa K. Buahene. She’s a managing partner with n-gen, a performance consulting company, and the co-author of the book Loyalty Unplugged: How to Get, Keep & Grow All Four Generations (Xlibris Corporation). Ms. Buahene expects that millennials will “revolutionize” the way we work as organizations shift their culture to meet new employees halfway.
“We’re learning that they can afford to be choosy about who they come on board with and who offers them the best fit from a work-life balance perspective,” says Gail Seipp, a Dalhousie graduate who now manages on-campus recruiting for Frito Lay Canada. Her company now offers a flexible work-life balance policy that tries to find solutions benefiting both employee and employer. “If an employee suggests an idea on how Frito-Lay can improve his or her work-life balance, we work to support the employee to make it happen.”
“Companies are looking at their people practices and saying, ‘Do we really tap into the motivations, behaviours and expectations of all four generations?’” says Ms. Buahene. “They’re also changing their recruitment and hiring practices accordingly.”
This competition for tomorrow’s talent means the days of relying on a job ad alone to attract students are numbered. “It’s not enough,” says Laura Addicott, director of Dalhousie’s Career Services Centre. “It’s still very integral, but it’s just the mechanism by which the final connection is made. The rest of the process has to be relationship building.”
Facilitating relationships between students and employers is increasingly central to the Career Services Centre’s mandate. In her decade with the office formerly known as the Student Employment Centre, Ms. Addicott has seen dramatic changes in how companies and organizations are working to recruit university students.
“We had to do a lot more work in those days to encourage people to recruit students from Dalhousie, and I’m sure my colleagues across the country would say the same thing,” she says. “Today, their tactics are changing. The quality of the production material and its messaging is dramatically improving. They’re trying to understand their audience, give them what they want, and are working through units like ours to reach them better.”
In the 21st century, universities like Dalhousie are a magnet for corporate, government and nonprofit recruitment. During this past academic year, 215 organizations presented at campus-wide career fairs, 180 employers participated in other career activities on campus and over 15,000 jobs were posted to the Career Services Centre’s website.
One of the most successful employer information sessions this past year was organized by Health Canada, attracting nearly 100 students to learn about job opportunities for BSc graduates. Its hook: joining senior management representatives were comedians from the Second City comedy troupe, adding a lighter touch to the government department’s pitch.
“Sending a bunch of 45- or 50-year-olds in suits by themselves to talk to students is probably not a winning approach in hiring new recruits,” acknowledges Health Canada’s Cathy Peters, who managed the national recruitment drive. “It’s a new way of promoting ourselves that is a little more natural, fun and upbeat, while still getting our message across about what we do and why it matters.”
Priya Verma was one of the students hired in that recruitment drive and she is moving to Ottawa to work as a scientific regulator. Health Canada is a good fit for her ambitions: she wants no less than to play a major role in shaping national and international health policy in the future. When talking to prospective employers, she’s looking for a sense of what she can contribute and how the organization can help her achieve her goals.
“I want to know that, as a new graduate, I’m not going just to be getting someone’s coffee or being somebody’s assistant, but actually be valued for my information and my capacity to contribute,” she explains. “I need to know what my opportunities are going to be.”
Interactions with employers aren’t limited to job fairs and information sessions. For Toks Bakinson, who graduated this spring with her MBA, the term “elevator pitch” took on a whole new meaning when a casual conversation with a recruiter traveling on the Rowe building elevator made an impression. It led to her current job in Calgary as a financial analyst with Imperial Oil.
“I was just casually chatting and he turned out to be an employer!” she laughs as she recalls her conversation.
Ms. Bakinson, like many of her peers, has big plans: she wants to travel and hopefully work for an international non-profit organization. But she sees her new position as an ideal launching point for her career. “The thing about having a plan is flexibility,” she says. “It’s actually written in sand, and can even be washed away at times. But it helps me focus, knowing that I have an outline.”
In many ways, Ms. Bakinson has mapped out the ideal roadmap for the millennial generation, one that balances between planning ahead and embracing opportunity.
“There’s so much choice available today,” concludes Ms. Addicott. “It’s not the struggle it may have been in the past for some generations, and it isn’t the narrow path that people may have taken or have seen to take in the past. When there’s so much choice, why not try to explore? Graduates can turn their goals into reality — the opportunity is out there in today’s market.”
Don Christie with Dalhousie's Career Services Centre assisted with research on this article.