Generational Conflicts Aggravate Talent Shortage

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 3, 2008
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A limited transfer of knowledge—not a lack of workers as baby boomers edge closer to retirement—is a critical factor that will contribute to a talent shortage for U.S. businesses, according to the newly released 2008 World of Work survey commissioned by Randstad.

Knowledge is not being transferred because today’s multigenerational workforce—traditionalists, baby boomers, and generations X and Y—rarely interact with each other and often do not recognize each other’s skills or work ethics, it found.

This limited interaction in the workplace is a key indicator of an impending crisis of a lack of skilled workers, according to findings based on the online survey of 1,295 U.S. employers and 2,199 U.S. employees conducted in December 2007 and January 2008 and released May 27, 2008.

It reflects the observations of Amy Shevlin, vice president of HR for the Electronics & Integrated Solutions (E&IS) operating group of BAE Systems Inc., a major defense electronics business. E&IS has more than 17,000 employees in 16 states, the United Kingdom and Israel, according to its web site.

Shevlin was among the speakers at a recent Hay Group panel discussion in Tysons Corner, Va. on Outrunning the Workforce Crisis.

“The most challenging thing is I don’t think [boomers and generations X and Y] value the perspective of the other,” she said.

Workers from younger generations “are looking for attention” for guidance in their career path and development, she said, advising employers that any plans they develop for these workers are active ones.

E&IS, for example, has begun focusing on peer mentoring for its younger generation employees; is looking at different training programs, such as a future senior leaders plan, and designing a set of competencies to model behavior.

Those strategies reflect some of the Hay Group’s best practice recommendations for outrunning the workforce crisis, which include:

  • Defining the jobs or roles that will be critical to the organization’s future, understanding each role’s unique requirements, targeting the talent needed and developing it accordingly.
  • Focusing on succession planning by matching the required jobs and managing the supply; have a strategy for accelerating the readiness of employees for key roles, especially senior leadership.
  • Creating career paths for employees with high potential and high value so the most talented employees see advancement on the horizon and know how to reach it.
  • Designing training and development in order to develop talent at a faster pace; creating a knowledge transfer program.
  • Build leadership competence bycreating an environment that people want to be a part of, one that engages and motivates workers and drives strong performance.
  • Linking compensation to goals of personal growth and career progression and creating rewards in proportion to the high value of employee talent.
  • Customizing retention strategies to generational needs.
  • Involving the board in talent management.
  • Ensuring smooth onboarding, such as pairing new employees with a peer mentor or steward.

Tapping into Gen Y’s Needs

Ernst & Young’s peer mentoring program is an example of a company that has developed strategies targeted to the Generation Y workforce, Fortune magazine writer and Hay Group panel member Nadira Hira told SHRM Online.

As a way to build the new employee’s support network, E&Y matches new employees with an experienced peer counselor working in a position similar to the new employee. The peer counselor shares insights and experiences, answers questions and helps the mentee to maneuver within the workplace.

E&Y provides more than 100 formal courses in subjects such as management, communication and interpersonal skills. As workers progress through the organization they might participate in specialized programs, such as group mentoring designed for high-potential women and minorities.

These are the kind of employer efforts that tap into her generation’s need for feedback, according to Hira, whose Fortune cover story on Generation Y grabbed national attention in 2007.

Generation Y’s upbringing has direct implications on the workplace, she noted. Ys

are the product of hovering “helicopter” parents who ran their children’s errands and scheduled their children’s lives, including college classes. They’ve been “teamed to death, coached to death,” and their “stretched adolescence” makes age 25 the new 15, Hira said.

Theirs is a generation “very driven to succeed.” Its strong sense of “group” has influenced the culture, as evidenced by web sites such as FaceBook, and it has a “vocal-ness” that sets it apart from other generations, she said. It’s not unheard of, for example, for a job candidate from Generation Y to come into the interview and lay out his or her expectations, Hira said.

They want meaningful work, they want to know how they will fit into the organization, and they want a sense of their career path at the organization, she said. Giving business cards and phone numbers to new employees even in low-level positions helps give them an immediate sense of connectedness to the organization.

In addition, they want to know how the organization is living its vision and values. Simply handing a job candidate a copy of the organization’s mission statement is a sure way to extinguish interest in the organization.

Generation Y, at nearly 80 million strong, outnumbers the 78.5 million baby boomers and 48 million Generation X-ers, so it’s to an employer’s benefit, Hira pointed out, to learn how to deal with them.

It’s not all about the younger generation, though, in closing the knowledge gap. In Randstad’s survey, 51 percent of boomers and 66 percent of traditionalists said they have little or no interaction with their Generation X or Y co-workers.

“The workplace is on the verge of real change,” said Eric Buntin, a managing director at

Randstad USA, in a press release.

“By focusing on and encouraging the professional contributions of all employees, employers can help close the knowledge gap by instituting ways for each generation to [project] their strengths and value to all colleagues.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

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