sportswear shop assistant working in store

As millennials continue to enter the workforce, there is a growing frustration on the part of baby boomer managers at the challenges they face in both attracting and retaining this next generation of employees. A recent study jointly conducted by the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University and the School of Retailing at the University of Alberta surveyed university business students to gain insights into what young workers want and expect from retail employers. If retailers can create a better working environment for their younger employees, not only will it make them easier to manage, but perhaps more promising young people will choose retail as a career after graduation and go on to management positions.

To begin with, the study found that millennials are a very entrepreneurial cohort, with almost 60% of the survey respondents indicating that they wanted to start their own businesses. The challenge for retailers, then, is to create a work environment that allows these individuals to feel like they are working for themselves, complete with autonomy, flexibility, and decision-making responsibilities.

Read: Managing Gen Y

Another interesting characteristic of the subject group was that while more than 80% of them currently work or have worked as sales associates, barely 60% felt it was a positive experience; a clear indication that retailers are not doing a good enough job of engaging this group. While 90% said they had received some level of training, only 34% said they had received any form of mentorship and training alone is clearly not enough for this demographic. The respondents overwhelmingly indicated that they both wanted and expected mentorship as part of the job experience. Based on these responses, the retail sector should take some responsibility for giving high school students their first jobs, paying them poorly and doing an even poorer job of training and mentoring. This goes a long way toward explaining why university students have little desire to follow a career path in the retailing and services sectors.

When the respondents were asked how retailers might improve the employee experience, the top four strategies were to 1) establish clear opportunities for advancement, 2) use the employees’ talents, 3) involve staff in “big decisions,” and 4) ensure that managers were qualified for their jobs. Other ways to improve the employee experience were to give them recognition and respect, to invest in training and to provide mentorship. Millennials take a longer view of employment opportunities; they want well-defined career paths and encourage performance-based incentives. They are not lazy, but they are looking for work/life balance, which was defined in the study as opportunities such as flexible shifts and being able to build in time for volunteering. Also, they are as concerned with a company’s stance on the environment and sustainability as they are the goods and services the company offers.

One of the words that came up over and over again in our research was “culture.” While some subjects defined culture as an “atmosphere, morals and values,” others defined it in terms of “ethics and team work.” Still others saw it as the “attitude” and the “soul of an organization.” Though completely subjective, the idea and concept of having a great culture in a business is paramount to millennials. The idea of a shared value system that serves as a unifying force within an organization clearly holds a strong attraction for these employees. One potential explanation for this finding is that, in the absence of organized religion and well-defined family values, this generation is looking for an alignment of their own core values with that of the companies they work for. For them, it creates a work environment that is secure and happy.

Read: The Gen Y Whisperer

Since millennials are the most technically savvy generation to date, we also looked at their expectations for the use of technology in the workplace. We found that the respondents were drawn to companies that are committed to the use of technology and they were unanimous in their belief that it was 100% necessary. The respondents also displayed a deep understanding that any use of technology must 1) add value, 2) boost sales, 3) increase efficiency, 4) improve communication, and 5) improve productivity. It is interesting to note that these are the same caveats that management generally places on the use of technology in the workplace. Furthermore, the survey respondents also felt there was a need for guidelines for the use of technology and that technology could become a distraction and take away from the “personal touch,” which is characteristic of a stellar retail experience.

Millennials are a very different cohort entering the retail workforce from previous ones, and therefore require a different communication strategy that is challenging for many baby boomer managers. But, at the end of the day, the millennials’ deep understanding of the core principles that are at the heart of the retail industry is mature and insightful. Millennials are bright, creative and technically on their game, and the industry stands to benefit greatly if it can convince more of these future managers to make retail the focus of their careers.

Dr. Paul McElhone is executive director of the University of Alberta School of Retailing.

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