Here come the millennials! Are you ready?

Large companies must bend to calls for new technology to recruit top Gen Y talent

Like most generations before it, Generation Y -- those born between roughly 1982 and 2002 -- has been stereotyped based on a cultural change identified with its era. In this case, the group is united by a hunger to use the latest technologies to communicate.

These digital natives -- also known as millennials -- are natural multitaskers, often simultaneously texting on a mobile device and instant-messaging on a PC without removing even one iPod ear bud. Many of this generation can't conceive of communicating without an IM system or social network.

Now that members of Generation Y are graduating from college and entering the work force, they're bringing a slew of technology demands to IT organizations of potential employers. In fact, in many cases members of the new generation research the technology portfolios of potential employers before agreeing to sit down for a job interview.

Because the generation's demands are vastly different from those of earlier groups, many companies are struggling to find ways to satisfy them.

Those that don't, say some experts who have studied Generation Y, may find themselves struggling to hire and keep the most talented young workers

Ron Alsop, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up, said that many recent entrants into the workforce face a culture shock from Day One. Alsop's book, due out next month, looks at how the new generation is already shaking up the workplace.

The first millennials are often landing in offices without instant messaging technology or access to social networks, Alsop noted. It's possible that these employers are avoiding new technologies because of security concerns or budgetary constraints, but in so doing, they're sending up red flags to new workers, he added.

"Companies really need to loosen up a bit and not play Big Brother too much by worrying about blocking certain social networking Web sites," Alsop said. "Companies have to realize that they need to meet millennials half way."

Some forward-thinking large companies are making moves to become more technology savvy, he noted.

For example, a group of recent MBA graduates hired by Johnson & Johnson successfully lobbied the New Brunswick, N.J. -based consumer products company to create an internal social network, according to an advance copy of Alsop's book. The social network has grown to include virtual classrooms for training and a career counseling center.

The company is now looking to broaden the network beyond its MBAs, Alsop wrote.

Meanwhile, Alsop said in an interview that Capital One Financial Corp. in McLean, Va., is creating internal discussion boards and its own version of Wikipedia in an effort to improve worker collaboration. And New York-based Ernst & Young LLP has developed a guide to help managers interpret IM shorthand.

At Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., in Chantilly, Va., Generation Y agents are seeking IT's help in marketing themselves on social networks, said Mayur Raichura, vice president of information services. The young workers are also seeking the ability to create YouTube-like online video presentations that can be easily spread across the Web, he added.

Long & Foster is now evaluating different services that could be used to support those requests, Raichura said.

Paul Wright, IT director for education in the State of Missouri, said that almost half of his 58 employees are part of Generation Y, requiring him to focus squarely on embracing new technologies to retain them and recruit more of them.

For example, the state last year a launched virtual job fair program in the Second Life virtual world to attract talented millennials for IT slots. The program, Wright said, has already netted some quality hires.

Next month, Wright plans to meet with colleagues in other state agencies to discuss ways they can use Second Life.

The state using the Facebook's social network as a recruiting vehicle, he said.

Wright noted that the use of Web 2.0 techniques paint the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as technically savvy while providing an inexpensive method of reaching out to potential workers across the world.

Wright said his unit is now considering requests for IM access.

"Being a state entity we have to be very careful of the data we collect," he noted. "Anything [like IM] opens us up. We need to be extremely careful that we're not opening a hole that someone could hack into and get some data that we're responsible for."

Wright and other IT managers noted that one of the defining characteristics of millennials include their ongoing desire to learn new skills and their zeal for using bleeding-edge technology.

Generation Y IT developers at the state agency, for example, are always eager to try out new tools and languages as soon as they are available. Wright noted that he often allows these employees to research the tools to determine whether they would benefit the organization

But after such trials, Wright said, he frequently has to explain ROI ramifications to the young workers if he finds it necessary to reject requests for specific technologies. "We have to come to an understanding that there is that balance between the latest and greatest technology and being responsible from a fiscal standpoint," he said.

Linda Gravett, author of Bridging the Generation Gap: How to Get Radio Babies, Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Yers to Work Together and Achieve More, noted that the millennials she interviewed for her book were very clear about their reluctance to work for companies that lack Web 2.0 tools and other emerging technologies.

Gravett agreed that IT organizations can have a hard time getting budgetary approval for expensive technology that is demanded by only a subset of the workforce, However, she suggested that IT managers keep track of whether a lack of such technology is prompting talented people to leave.

With that information, companies can compare job turnover costs to the price of new technologies to help justify IT spending requests.

She also advises companies to create focus groups consisting of workers of all ages to better keep tabs on technology needs.

Adam Sarner, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., suggested that companies study how the workplace attitudes of Generation Y are significantly different from those of earlier generations.

A millennial, he noted, is accustomed to using social networks and contributing his or her own content to the Internet. The generation also tends to judge people based on their technology acumen, Sarner said.

Thus, some of those workers may have trouble handling a traditional corporate hierarchy where some top executives lack strong technology skills. Generation Y workers are also more likely to contend that technology can be used to improve long-established business processes, Sarner said.

"Some of the old ways of doing things are absolutely being questioned," he noted. "The workplace is going to have more explaining to do than 'This is the way we've always been doing things.'"

Alsop warned that IT managers must make sure that the new generation uses Web 2.0 technologies according to corporate dictates.

For example, workers just graduating from college appear to have far fewer privacy concerns than their older colleagues, and therefore need training about the dangers of sharing corporate information online., he said.

The state of Missouri is developing new rules to guide employee use of virtual worlds or social networks. The guidelines require that employees assume that activities in virtual communities are public and that any data posted online may be visible for a long time. Also, any employee conducting business for the state in a virtual community must have explicit authorization from management.

Despite the growing onslaught of the millennial workforce on the corporate world, some companies have not yet had to address the issue.

David Berry, a senior vice president and CIO at Coty Inc., noted that the New York-based cosmetics company doesn't yet employ many younger workers, and that the IT unit has been too busy -- integrating companies, implementing new products and rolling out new applications -- to address the issue yet.

Nonetheless, Alsop warned that companies must start finding ways to address the needs of millennials if they want access to the best new talent.

"More and more students are going to ask them what their technology environment is like," he added. "What will wake up companies to this is when they fail to recruit the students they want.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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