April 2008
  Cara Bobchek & Barbara Irwin
HR Advisors Group

HR Advisors Group, LLC is a Washington, DC HR consultancy focused solely on engineering, architecture, and related professions.  Barbara H. Irwin is President and Founder, with over 20 years of experience in the design and construction industries.  Cara Bobchek, coauthor of Strategic Planning for Design Firms (Kaplan, 2007), is a management consultant with 25 years of experience.  To order Future Leaders Focus, a Survey of Architects and Engineers with up to Seven Years of Experience, contact HR Advisors Group, LLC at www.hradvisorsgroup.com.  

Our Youngest Engineers Tell Us What's "Next"

We heard the lament once again in a conversation with an engineering firm manager just last week, while gathering background information for a strategic plan: 

“It seems that the younger generation is so used to whining and getting what they want. It almost seems like they feel that the company works for them instead of they work for the company.”

It’s a common theme that we’re hearing more and more in our HR and management consulting practice:  younger workers appear to carry a “sense of entitlement” in their careers. Employers ask us, “How do we manage the younger generation in our firms, especially in light of the different approach that they seem to take to their careers than the older (my) generation?”

With any number of books and articles available on the topic of the Millenials, or Generation Next, as the youngest generation of workers is known, as well as coverage by such highly visible institutions as the Society for Human Resources Management and television’s 60 Minutes (November 2007), employers in general have a wealth of resources available to them. However, given the frequency with which we hear about this topic from our engineering and architecture firm clients, HR Advisors Group decided to query young design professionals directly about what motivates them in their careers. Therefore, we launched 2007’s Future Leaders Focus, a survey of nearly 1,000 young engineering and architectural consulting professionals across the U.S.

Are today’s young engineers that much different from their older colleagues? Do they really have such unique priorities and work ethics? The Nexters certainly think so:  Over 70% of them say they have differing personal priorities than older generations—which should come as no surprise, given their different stage in life. But nearly 90% of the Nexters surveyed say that younger generations approach their work differently than older generations.

An interesting set of survey results had to do with what motivated the younger generation of engineers to accept their current positions. Of a list of 22 elements, the survey respondents ranked their potential to earn a bonus or the opportunity to own stock in the company among those that they considered to be the least important. Companies have an opportunity to educate our young engineers about opportunities they may have to enhance their future earning power beyond their base salaries in order communicate the bigger picture to them. Employers who can do this effectively will be more successful in recruiting and retention of this population.

Which of the 22 elements motivated the survey respondents most when they accepted their current positions?  Not salary, not benefits, but future career opportunities.

If your firm, like so many others, is feeling the recruitment and retention pinch, then you already know that you’ve got to figure out a way to attract and retain young engineers or face serious staffing issues that will affect your ability to deliver work to your clients.  Although recruitment and retention continue to be a critical challenge facing engineering firms today, fewer than 20% of the survey respondents report that they participate in recruiting for their companies—even though many candidates for recruitment are their same age and would relate to them comfortably. What a missed opportunity for employers!
The survey results reveal important generational issues unique to the consulting engineering industry. For example, many young engineers today are resistant to the classic 8 a.m. workday start that was a touchstone to their forebears in the industry. About 90% of the Nexters who make up the survey population believe that they are most effective at work when their hours are flexible. Although flexible workday schedules were nearly unheard of when we began our careers in the engineering field over 20 years ago, companies must adapt to this approach if they are to be competitive in today’s marketplace.

There is good news for employers in the survey results, as well:  the young engineers are much more likely to agree that loyalty to one or a very few companies is important in order to have career advancement. Remember, “future career opportunities” was the most important element to this population in deciding to accept their current position; the survey response indicates that employers who provide a career path can expect greater loyalty from their young employees.

Should your firm reshape your entire organizational culture to accommodate the so-called “Nexters” generation? We don’t recommend it. However, it is crucial to understand the Nexters’ culture and allow it to influence your own in positive ways. Most important to successful relationships with Nexters—or any generation in the workplace—is open and frequent communication. Only when your employees understand what you expect of them and what you are willing to do in exchange can they meet—and exceed—those expectations. We recommend the following:

Be a Mentor. Although career development opportunities were their #1 priority, fewer than 40% of the Nexters have a mentor at work. As busy as senior staff are today, their coaching and mentoring nevertheless provide the guidance that the younger generations need and want in order to grow and to take over the reins as we Baby Boomers retire; this investment of time engenders loyalty. Mentoring is a winning proposition for everyone at the firm.

Establish Career Paths. This population wants to see where their careers can progress in the future when they join a company. Employers should define and communicate career ladders to employees, and explain and model what it takes to achieve each rung.

Talk About It. Only about a third of the Nexters surveyed report that their company’s leaders have addressed generational differences among employees. At the very least, you should ask your own workers if this is an issue for them, and find out why. Talk about the topic in staff meetings or at casual lunch-and-learns. You might even charter an intergenerational committee at your company to promote multi-age activities and communication, and to advise on recruiting, training and development, and employee relations and retention issues