Keeping Millennials on the payroll

Just how loyal are millennial workers?

When a whole generation of employees packs up and quits early, it behooves an employer to take notice, which is exactly what one of the nation's largest accounting firms did.

Here's the problem that PwC faced: The company began to notice that Millennials (which it defines as those born from 1980 to 1995, were leaving the firm in growing numbers after a few years. "Even more alarmingly, a significant majority of them appeared to lack interest in the traditional professional services career path, one that required an intense work commitment early in their career in exchange for the chance to make partner later on."

These words come from the introduction to a massive employee survey and study that PwC, also known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, undertook in response to its employment problem. Currently, two out of three company employees are Millennials and in three years, nearly 80 percent will be Millennials. Something had to change.

To respond, the company surveyed 44,000 workers in 18 global areas (that's one in four employees), carefully comparing results from the Millennials and from more senior workers. There were also focus groups, in depth interviews and an online chat component. The study came out last month.

What the company found was that its assumptions about how it structured its work weren't really working for anybody. Everyone, all ages, wanted more flexibility at work, with options to start later or earlier or work at night, if necessary. And they are so serious about it that many say they would give up pay raises and slow the pace of promotions in return for flexibility.

What makes Millennials different is that they have a strong desire for supervisor support and appreciation. They want team cohesion and flexibility in where and how they work. By contrast, those born before 1980 are more motivated by control over their work, opportunities to develop and pay satisfaction, the study found. The study summarizes the difference. For the older workers, transactional needs dominate. For younger workers, social needs count. 

So what's next?

PwC suggests that other companies take advantage of what it has learned:

Obviously a flexible work schedule is a must. The Millennials also want a chance to go global and they see global assignments as a path to advancement. The Millennials want a more transparent system around compensation and rewards. 

Given that they are socially-oriented, building a sense of community is key. 

There is, however, one alarming suggestion:

"Evaluate the impact that Millennials may have on the contingent workforce strategy of your organization," one finding says. It goes on: "Leveraging Millennials as contingent workers will provide organizations better control over variable costs, and enable a more flexible, dynamic workforce that is able to scale up or down to meet the changing needs of the organization."

This sounded dubious to me, so I asked P. Edward Lovelidge, managing partner of PwC's Philadelphia office about it. I was concerned because Millennials are already suffering from this economic downturn. They tend to get laid off more frequently. Would this study, written in the name of retaining young people, end up shafting them, by pushing them into contingent (temporary) jobs?

That's not how Lovelidge saw it. Here's the example he provided: As a service to its corporate clients, PwC handles individual tax returns for employees assigned abroad, calculating how much each must pay to the host country. This work tends to crunch in between March and June. Normally, Lovelidge said, PwC's response would be to just pile on the work on existing employees. And clearly, he said, the surveys show that the young people don't want that. They are insisting on a work-life balance. 

But, wouldn't it be great, he said, if young PwC associates, looking to take a break to care for young children, could have the time off, but come in to lend a hand during that period? It would keep them connected, keep their skills sharp, and make them less likely to quit, he said.  

Lovelidge said that the majority of the 1,550 workforce assigned to PwC's Philadelphia office are under the age of 27. In fact, 123 of its 148 new hires are millennials – that's 83 percent. 

To adjust to their desires for flexibility, Lovelidge said, PwC has loosened up work hours. The work needs to be done, schedules need to be adjusted on a team basis, but within the teams, workers can figure out when and how they'd like to work. "It's about giving them the right to ask for the flexibility," he said.

In the past, he said, associates would be reluctant to ask for a few hours off in the mid-afternoon to watch a kid's baseball game. Not any more -- as long as client needs are met, he said, the work can be done anytime. 

I wrote another blog about Millennials earlier this week. The headline tells the topic: Millennial workers: Where's the loyalty? Click here to read it and here to read our series on the prospects they face in today's economy.