Frustrated. Baffled. Perplexed. These are just a few of the words employers and educators use when they try to reach and retain employees and students from the millennial generation. This group, ages 14 to 35, has businesses and communities stymied. What makes millennials tick, how can employers get through to them and how are they motivated to take action?

The millennial generation, also known as Generation Y, doesn’t have to be a mystery. Time and again the same basic themes emerge: As decision-makers, millenials are driven by emotion and experience, and they need to be shown the value of what their employer can deliver.

Attracting and retaining more of the right millennial employees—in the right roles and for the right reasons—is very attainable. Millennials are talented, intelligent and adaptable workers with much to contribute to the nation’s skilled workforce. What’s the secret to reaching these employees? It’s simple but profound: Hiring and retention strategies must be built around a clear understanding of the “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Feeling the Branch Creak
If millenials go out on a limb, they don’t feel the urgency of that branch creaking under them. At every socio-economic level, upper class through poverty, this generation tends to believe nothing too bad will happen to them. In general, they can always move back home (with their baby boomer parents) or crash at a friend’s place. No branch creak: no action. No reason to achieve: no achievement.

The challenge is to make this generation see the light at the end of the tunnel. The tunnel is the work, the effort and the consistency that success requires, and the light is the reward of persevering through the tunnel. Why would anyone go through the tunnel unless they wanted to come out the other side? Simply put, the light creates the “want to.”

If an employer can create the light for every program and role, then the company can create the “want to”—and the “how to” will come.

Generation Y Is Generation Why

Part of effectively shining the light at the end of the tunnel is understanding that Generation Y really is Generation “Why?” When faced with a new task or skill to master, millennials will ask why it’s important and why it needs to be done that way. As authority figures, instructors and employers are often taken aback by this question.

It’s critical to remember that in most cases, millennials are not being defiant. They are truly interested in improving the process and bringing their own contributions to the task at hand. They want to put their own stamp on their work, delivering their unique talents and abilities to take it to the next level.

This is an asset, not a liability. Instead of viewing millennials as raw, unpolished and possibly uncooperative, embrace their ingenuity and resourcefulness. Give them the opportunity to demonstrate how unique, creative and vital they are, because that is part of the light at the end of the tunnel that motivates them. Being open to their ideas can lead to new efficiencies and innovations that drive success.

Embracing the Light at the End of the Tunnel

There are two components of the strategy for connecting with millennials and keeping them productive, interested and satisfied in their careers.
  • Shine the light on the career. What does their future career look like? What kinds of skills and talents will they need to possess? What opportunities will they have? How can they contribute? What kind of money will they make, and what advancement is possible?
  • Shine the light on the lifestyle. What will their life look like? Will they make enough money to travel, see concerts and have a family? What kind of freedoms will they enjoy, and where can they live?
When this generation is hungry to achieve the career and lifestyle—the light at the end of the tunnel—that’s when they’ll step up and take action. Until that light dawns, most educators, businesses and communities will continue to struggle with mediocre results.

Shine the light constantly once millennials join the organization. Remind them every week how far they’ve come and how much closer they are to their goals. Whenever possible, let them see, feel and experience the light at the end of the tunnel.

Attracting and retaining more of the right millennials is critical to an organization’s ability to recruit the best talent for the best results—and ultimately succeed in the competitive marketplace. 


Mark Perna is founder of Cleveland-based Tools for Schools. For more information, call (216) 215-8115, email mark@mt4s.com or visit www.mt4s.com.