May 29, 2012

If you were to believe some of the reports focused on the work habits of the newest generation to join the workforce, you would wonder why anyone would hire a so-called Millennial. Also known as Generation Y or the ME Generation, Millennials have been described as self-centered with a feeling of entitlement; and their demands for immediate (positive) feedback only make them that much more difficult to manage.

But criticisms have been leveled at previous generations, too. Baby Boomers, after all, were hippies, and Gen Xers, raised on TV and video games, supposedly had no focus or drive. And now along come the Millennials.

To be sure, Millennials possess some easily definable traits. Smartphones are their connectivity device of choice, and they always are connected via social networks and text messaging. But they also are expert multitaskers, and they are highly proficient with technology and can adapt to new systems and software relatively easily (especially compared to "luddite" Gen X or Boomer peers). To call them bad workers or difficult to mange, however, isn't an accurate depiction.

Constance Melrose, managing director for the Americas at eFinancialCareers.com, says she doesn't buy into all of the negative hype surrounding the ME Generation. "All of those things about Millennials were said about Baby Boomers, too," she notes. "Millennials are in their twenties, and any generation in their twenties is very idealistic and full of energy. The opportunity, as managers, is how you can harness those great qualities."

A Business Imperative

But tapping into the Millennial Generation isn't just an opportunity for some companies, it's an imperative for all companies, says Tom Silver, SVP, North America, at IT career site Dice.com. "There is a war for talent, and dealing with Millennials is critical for survival," he says. "This is the future workforce and where the new workers are coming from."

Scott Ignall, chief technology officer at Lightspeed Trading, says he has seen some very positive things from Millennial workers. "They are savvy problem solvers, and they look at things in a completely different way," he reports. "The Millennials bring an energy and drive and connectedness that can't be replicated. That has done a lot of good things for our company. It teaches people to solve problems in different ways."

[Millennials May Be the Cure for the IT Talent Shortage in Financial Services.]

While the Millennials bring some new ideas to the table, however, they still need guidance, Ignall adds. "The older IT guys have a more established track record, and they understand the markets and trading systems," which is something newer employees have to learn, he says. "The new employees learn from that, and the older guys benefit from some of the tools and skills the younger workers bring." For instance, while C++ and other languages have been the codes of choice for trading systems for a while, Millennials are helping to bring Java and other Internet-based methodologies to the trading environment, Ignall notes.

According to Ignall, the most important — and measurable — skill that Millennials bring to the workforce is "their uncanny ability to find things that are absolutely free." "That is how they are raised," he explains. "It is second nature to them." A Millennial, Ignall continues, "knows where to look to find a free version" of some software tool for which a Gen Xer or Boomer would likely pay. Lightspeed is using open source applications, tools and free versions of database technologies that Millennials have found, whereas "older guys wouldn't even know where to look" for them, Ignall says. "That is absolutely measureable."

The ME Generation also seems to be highly adaptable to new ideas and situations. "Millennials are accustomed to having information come at them in many different ways and, as a result, they are very flexible," says Dice.com's Silver. "If companies want to shift focus or move in a different direction, [Millennials] can gather info quickly and be flexible. Typically, flexibility and change are attributes that employees struggle with."

The ability of Millennials to embrace new things and adapt is something from which managers can benefit, the experts agree. "The ability to put ideas into action quickly is important," says eFinancialCareers' Melrose. "The capacity to make changes and test them and having a high level of comfort with change is important." Millennials, she adds, seem to have "an openness to change and not being wedded to things, and those are good skills to have in today's market."

On the flip side, this adaptability also can be a challenge for managers and other employees who may not be looking to shake things up. Conflict can arise when a Millennial employee notices processes or methods that can be improved, Melrose acknowledges.

Millennials have "less patience with the inefficient use of technology," she says. "They won't like being wedded to a certain way of doing things just because that's the way a company has always gone about its business." While a company may have very good reasons for doing things a certain way, rather than simply dismissing their ideas for improvement, Melrose advises, smart managers will take the time to explain to Millennial employees why a change might not be such a good idea.