Staffing Management

The Last Word: Youth and Consequences

By Ronald Alsop

Feb. 17, 2011

Some cynics have taken to calling today’s teenagers and 20-somethings “the lost generation.” They believe unemployed and underemployed members of the millennial generation will never recover—financially or emotionally—from the deep recession.

It’s a pessimistic view that I don’t share. I will acknowledge that some scarred millennials have retreated back home to their parents, and those young people spend more time on social networks chatting with friends than using the same social media to reach out to potential employers. But I believe many other millennials can be highly resourceful. They will keep banging on employers’ doors and may eventually try starting their own enterprises if companies continue to reject them.

Although millennials may not possess the same intense work ethic as baby boomers, they have set very high expectations for themselves. That’s why the abysmal job market came as such a shock. Used to succeeding by doing all the right things, millennials assumed attending a good college and achieving a high GPA would just naturally result in a fabulous job. Unemployment was unthinkable.

Unfortunately, it has turned out to be quite real and far-reaching. Last December, the U.S. unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds was a stunning 25.4 percent, and for 20- to 24-year-olds, the rate stood at 15.3 percent. In some countries, the jobless rate for millennials is even higher. Spain’s youth unemployment rate topped 40 percent last year, and it exceeded 30 percent in Greece, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Addressing the urgency of global youth unemployment last month, Manpower Inc. chairman and CEO Jeffrey Joerres recommended more training programs, more incentives for entrepreneurship and more aggressive promotion of skilled trade careers.

At least for well-educated millennials, the job market is starting to loosen up. Our story this month about the MBA recruiting rebound offers hope, but many recruiters are only in hot pursuit of the best and brightest at the top tier universities. Students at many colleges and business schools still struggle to find any job; too often they wind up in positions that don’t match their qualifications. What a dramatic change from little more than a decade ago. When I was writing about business education at the tail end of the dot-com boom, recruiters were showering MBA students with rich signing bonuses, stock options, tuition reimbursement, mortgage assistance, luxury car leases and other goodies.

I understand why many cautious companies remain reluctant to hire anyone of any age until the economic recovery really takes hold. Yet, such thinking is shortsighted. Employers should realize how much is at stake if their future talent becomes discouraged and feels disenfranchised. Ultimately, companies will desperately need millennials to fill the void left by retiring baby boomers. They can’t afford to let this generation drift and delay the professional seasoning they will need to thrive and mature into strong leaders.

At the very least, employers should consider creating more internships for high school and college students as well as recent graduates. It’s an inexpensive, risk-free test-drive that lets both employer and prospective employee check each other out and decide whether they’re a good fit before considering a more permanent arrangement. Some smart companies have continued to make internships the focus of their recruiting strategy because they know it’s a terrific matchmaking tool. Steve Canale, a recruiting manager at General Electric Co., declared to Workforce Management: “If I had my budget slashed and only had $100 to spend, I’d spend it all on my internship program.”

The winner of the Workforce Management 2010 Optimas Award for financial impact also clearly believes in the value of a well-crafted internship strategy. To attract technology superstars, Ultimate Software Group Inc. offers students challenging internships in software development and maintenance. The program is so successful that the company boasts a 100 percent rate for converting its best interns into full-time hires.

For most students, intern recruiting is just getting under way, but I welcomed an intern to Workforce Management last month. James Walsh, who joined the editorial staff as part of the journalism residency program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, will write and edit stories for the magazine, website and newsletters this winter. I look forward to his contributions and the chance to help him gain valuable experience in today’s turbulent media business. Indeed, for me, it was an internship that launched my career in business journalism a few decades ago when the summer job turned into a full-time reporting position at The Wall Street Journal.

Workforce Management, February 2011, p. 42Subscribe Now!

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