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Exploring the issues that shape today's business world.

Minding the Millennials

Studies say Millennials aren’t the superstars we think they are. What gives? By Sheryl Nance Nash | Summer 2015

Summer Millennial

What happens when one of the top spenders on education—the United States—turns out a generation of young professionals that scores considerably lower than its international peers? Confusion for one, and a fair bit of finger pointing.

Employers and experts alike are flustered by results issued by Princeton-based Educational Testing Service (ETS), following its Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies test, administered to 23 participating countries. These results suggest that American Millennials are severely lagging in core competencies such as following directions, practical math, literacy and “problem-solving in technology-rich environments” when compared to their counterparts in other developed countries. In fact, U.S. Millennials were bested by their peers from every participating country with the exception of Spain and Italy. In numeracy, U.S. Millennials came in last. And to make matters worse, Millennials scored lower than any other tested age group within America (the test targeted individuals aged 16 to 65).

The disconnect is disorienting. A generation considered to be the best and brightest we’ve seen to date aren’t scoring as such. But do these test results really give an accurate picture? I mean, just take a look at Forbes’ 30 Under 30 and Crain’s Twenty In Their 20s. It’s not like they’re struggling for nominees. So what gives?

 “While many U.S. Millennials are doing great, I do recognize the differences,” says Rick Wong, a former VP and global device partner for a Seattle tech firm. During his tenure, Wong spent more than 60 percent of his time in Asian countries, including China, India, South Korea and Japan, and gained plenty of exposure to Millennial employees, customers and partners in each of those countries.

“My Millennial employees in Asia were focused on how much they got accomplished and looked for rewards based on what they got done,” he recalls. “But my U.S. Millennials expected rewards for their effort, whether it produced results or not.”

Wong adds that his kids’ elementary and high school teachers focused on building self-esteem and rewarding effort rather than results. Conversely, his Asian employees were expected to maintain an intense focus on core skills such as math, reading, writing and logic, telling him, “If you didn’t do things right, you did them over until you got them right.”

“Higher education and corporate development are operating in two separate worlds right now, but they need to talk about each other’s needs,” says Ladan Nikravan, senior editor for Human Capital Media in Chicago. “Millennials just aren’t learning the literacy, math and problem-solving skills necessary before entering the workforce.”

“Many lack the real-world experience to develop globally demanded skills,” adds Joan Kuhl, founder of consulting and research firm Why Millennials Matter. “They are more prepared to ace the interview than to exceed expectations on the job.”

While it’s easy to point fingers, not everyone is ready to throw Millennials off, or under, the bus. “Having worked with and taught high school students across the world over the past four years, I can confidently say that American critical thinking surpasses peers from across East Asia and South Asia,” says Frank Pobutkiewicz, founder of College Apprentice, a provider of international education programs for elite high school students.
And Joshua Watson, a Millennial and owner of IronRock Software, points out that, although in 1964 the United States ranked 11 out of 12 in international math assessments, only five years later we landed men on the moon and have led the world economically and technologically ever since.

So is it really a matter of perception over assessment? Kuhl argues that today’s Millennials are talented, driven and focused on what they want, yet are far too casual about their career preparations. When Why Millennials Matter partnered with Barnes & Noble College to study career preparation levels and Millennial perceptions of which skills and experiences companies desire, a major finding was that only 36.7 percent of juniors and seniors had participated in an internship, and 42.5 percent never even applied to one.

Kyle Lukianuk, a Millennial and director of business development at Good Returns Group, suggests this might be an intentional choice. “In my opinion, the true cause for Millennials ‘lagging behind’ in job-related skills is that it becomes overly apparent early on that success in almost every industry relies much less on what you know, but rather who you know. My generation has discovered that grabbing a beer with someone in the industry you’re interested in and building a network and placing your foot in a bunch of doors can be just as beneficial as achieving a 3.8 in a financial derivatives class—and it’s way more fun.”

Fun seems to be a recurring theme. Millennials tend to value open communication, professional growth, fairness, humor, levity, clarity and wellbeing in the workplace, according to a recent survey by Aon Hewitt. When asked what they liked most in an organization, they cited more relationship-oriented values, including work-home balance, employee recognition, loyalty and respect. And when asked what they most wanted to see enhanced in their current jobs to increase their engagement or satisfaction, the top answers included pay and benefits, good career or development opportunities, and performance recognition.

At a time when employers are striving to attract and retain talent, the survey found that 43 percent of Millennials plan to actively look for a new job. So what are employers to do?
This generation needs to be accepted and provided with the opportunities to grow, says Stefanie Chow, a Millennial engagement specialist and corporate trainer. “Employers could provide more entry-level jobs and implement more effective mentorship and training programs, for example.”

Furthermore, Millennials crave feedback—a fact that needs to be leveraged. “Managers have opportunities daily to create great workplace cultures in which they provide leadership and guidance. While some managers might ask why they should praise Millennials for doing their jobs since that’s what they are getting paid for, Millennials are less likely to respond to the traditional command-and-control type of management,” explains Paul Snellenberger, senior HR consultant with People, Etc. “Give a little and you may get a lot. Every person is unique and has something to offer. Managers can’t be intimidated by differences.”

Setting goals also helps to provide focus. “Millennials like to feel like they are contributing to something greater than themselves; they want something that they can believe in,” explains Andrea Westhead, an HR specialist with StaffScapes. “Work with them to come up with goals for their job, and be clear about duties, responsibilities and expectations.”

This is a generation with plenty to contribute if we all listen, says Westhead. “Millennials want to have input on processes and discussions on those processes, and not just be told what to do and how to do it. Try asking them how they might better facilitate a project, and then ask them to walk you through the process step-by-step,” she says. With each step, Millennials get closer to living up to their full potential—and a formidable potential it is. 

3 Simple Steps to Spotlight Your Talents

Becky Fisher, executive director of partnerships at Fullbridge, a career accelerator program, suggests that Millennials take the following steps to silence the naysayers and truly showcase their abilities:

1. Develop a toolbox of skills. “Start building a set of hard and soft skills that will make you a more desirable hire. Skills such as public speaking, finance, presentation and teamwork are all attractive to companies. The more these skills are developed, the more an employer will want to hire you.”

2. Be humble and willing to learn. “No one knows everything, especially those who have been in the workforce less than 10 years. Show a willingness to learn from those around you, and stay open-minded.”

3. Get real. “There is no substitute for hard work no matter what anyone tells you. To be an A-player in the workplace, be less concerned about how to be an A-player and more concerned with how to help your company, team and manager.”