by Thor Olavsrud

Tips on How IT Leaders Can Attract (and Retain) Millennials

Jul 20, 20127 mins
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

Hiring and retaining millennials--young adults in their 20s--can be challenging for IT organizations that don't understand how to attract and engage them. While compensation remains important, millennials are really looking for social and fun workplaces with plenty of new challenges to tackle.

If you lead an IT shop today, chances are at least some of the employees who report to you are millennials–young adults in their 20s. Millennials–also known as Generation Y–think about life and work differently than older boom and gen X employees, and hiring and retaining them requires management that understands their needs and a business environment to match, says Jim Finkelstein, president and CEO of FutureSense, a consulting firm the specializes in organization and people.

A recent survey of millennials in the workplace conducted by MTV found that most millennials believe the workplace should be social and enjoyable, and they want flexible hours and less governance over the projects to which they are assigned. About half say they would rather have no job than a job they hate, and nearly two-thirds believe they should be mentoring older coworkers when it comes to tech and getting things done.

Employers often take these attitudes to mean that millennials are lazy, cocky, unwilling to pay their dues and feel they are exempt from the rules. But Finkelstein, who has authored a book on how to tackle the “co-generational workplace,” challenges those assumptions, believing employers should instead view them as hungry and more moldable than older and more seasoned IT professionals.

“Millennials should not be sold short as slacking, uninspired workers and be seen for what most of them are: innovative, creative and hungry for job roles that they can grow in in an ongoing capacity,” says Finkelstein. “If these are employers’ assumptions of the millennial work ethic, their employees are going to pick up on that, thus creating a workplace culture built on distrust and judgment from the get go, hindering a positive, productive exchange of thoughts, ideas and innovation.”

In fact, given room to run, millennials may even prove more productive, Finkelstein says.

“They’ve got the ability to multitask because their brains have been wired differently from the get go,” he says. “They’ve been in the computer age since they were born. They may actually get stuff done faster and more efficiently. We assume they’re lazy because they’re not going to come in and ask for more work. Well shame on us for not giving them more work.”

Manage Your Employer Brand to Attract Millennials

First off, CIOs and other IT leaders need to get their heads around attracting millennials. Half of millennials would “rather have no job than a job they hate,” according to the MTV study, and most consider loving what they do to be more important than a big salary or a big bonus. Millennials will flock to organizations with a reputation for doing fun or interesting work, but CIOs from other firms will have to aggressively manage their employer brand if they hope to attract top talent, Finkelstein says.

“These folks don’t live to work,” he says. “They work to live. You have to build an employer brand that puts out there the environment you expect them to come into.”

According to the MTV survey, nearly 90 percent of millennials are looking for a workplace that’s social and fun, and 71 percent of them want their coworkers to be like a second family. Eighty-nine percent want to be constantly learning at their job, and they want it to be a two-way street: 75 percent of millennials want a mentor, and 90 percent want senior people in the company to listen to their ideas and opinions (65 percent want to mentor older coworkers when it comes to tech and getting things done). Ninety-five percent say they are motivated to work harder when they know where their work is going-when they understand the role and importance of their work in the context of the overall business.

Steps for Building a Desirable IT Environment

Baking these values into your organization may be easier than it appears, Finkelstein says. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Create a team orientation. “They want to regard themselves as part of a greater whole,” he says. “They want to consider themselves as part of a team.” Teams are social and share ideas and creative solutions to problems. Team members can teach each other and learn from each other. Millennials often thrive in agile development environments, for example.
  • Offer training programs. Millennials are hungry to learn and don’t want to be boxed in to a single role. They want new skills and the opportunity to try new things. “They’ll take advantage of every training program that is made available to them,” Finkelstein says.
  • Put work in context. Millennials want to understand the importance of their work in the organization and they want to understand the organization’s role in the world. “They regard themselves as part of a greater whole, and they regard the greater whole as life and the world in which we live,” Finkelstein says. “They’re very interested in seeing corporate social responsibility. And they want to understand the ‘why.’ Why are we in business? Why do we do these things?”
  • Encourage work-life balance. “They want their life now,” Finkelstein says. “They want work-life balance now. What they fear is living poorly. They want lifestyle enjoyment, not wealth. They look at the dude 30 years older than they are, shoulders slumped, waiting for the end of whatever that career is, and they point at that guy and say they don’t want that job.”
  • Change things up. “They crave change,” Finkelstein explains. “The more you can find ways to keep shifting it up or moving them to a new team, the better. Or, if you can’t do that for whatever reason, get them involved in a think tank around a problem so they can feel as if there’s change and challenge all the time.”
  • Give them a good manager as a boss. Finkelstein notes that good managers listen to, empower and mentor those under them. “A good boss is also cool-they have fun and let employees have fun. They inspire invention and creativity. I don’t care how old they are. I think age isn’t the issue, it’s the quality.” However, he notes that older managers, who may feel as if they’re working with their kids, should take care not to take a “command and control” stance with millennials. Younger managers will often have an easier time creating a social environment with millennials, but need to retain the ability to coach and mentor-you don’t want to get too close.

The Real Issue Is Retention

Implementing these values will not only improve your employer brand and help you attract millennials, it will also help you retain them, Finkelstein says.

“The real issue you have for key technology positions is retention,” he says. “Millennials’ natural disposition is to move every 18 months. If you can ensure that the IT project you’re going to engage them on takes less than 18 months, you’re fine. If your project runs longer than that, you can expect turnover. It’s a cultural value system that they have; they really want to be able to move up or move on.”

But providing a social environment with the right combination of new challenges and opportunities to learn new skills will engage millennials and entice them to stay–an important point since data from PwC’s Saratoga Institute shows that replacing an employee can cost you 1.5X that employee’s salary burden.

“It’s going to get expensive if you have a lot of churn and nonproductive people who are not engaged,” Finkelstein says. “You have to watch the lifecycle of an employee on a project and pulse the engagement of the project team. There’s a cycle to that.”

Thor Olavsrud covers IT Security, Big Data, Open Source, Microsoft Tools and Servers for Follow Thor on Twitter @ThorOlavsrud. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Thor at