The Challenge of a Multigenerational Workforce

Commitment, Leadership, Respect Help Generations Find Common Ground, Communicate, Collaborate

By Jim Montague

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ABB A&PW 2012

Bridging generation gaps is never easy. But doing it successfully is increasingly crucial for multigenerational teams of engineers, technicians and other industrial professionals.

"Some of the latest research indicates that electric utilities worldwide are expecting to lose 40% of their staff to retirement by 2015, and the process industries are only two or three years behind us," said Dirk Hughes, director of Luminant Academy. "As a result, we had to become more aggressive in attracting, training and retaining new employees. We're looking at ways to bring in Generation Y, but only 3% of high school graduates say they want to work in power or petrochemical facilities because we're seen as companies where workers shovel coal. We have a branding problem to overcome. The question is how can we convince young adults that we can be their employer?"

To provide some of these vital communication tools, Hughes and two other experts presented the session, "Innovations in Human Capital; Motivating and Managing a Four-Generation Workforce," this week at ABB Automation and Power World 2012 in Houston. The presentations were moderated by Bill Strohecker, vice president of strategic utility accounts in ABB's U.S. Power Sales division. The trio included:

  • Hughes, of Luminant Academy, which reaches out to schools and colleges, presents scholarships and recruits students to work at one of Texas' largest power providers;
  • Terry Taylor, president of Global Genesis, a staffing consultant that helps companies develop their workforces; and
  • Diana Oreck, vice president of the Leadership Center for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.

To connect its power generation and distribution facilities to their local education systems and craft a pipeline for securing new employees, Hughes reported that Luminant developed a $10,000 scholarship program for an 18-month or two-year associate degree program for high school seniors. This program supports the students' technical education, but it also gives them the practical experience of working in Luminant's facilities for two summers and holidays, which better prepares them to work in the power plants later.

"One of the most important parts of an educational outreach program like this is committing at least some staff to it full-time," said Hughes. "You can't have someone just add a little outreach to his or her regular tasks and expect this to work." In fact, Luminant hired an educational outreach manager, who is required to spend 75% of the time away from the office visiting schools and junior colleges.

"We've also worked on branding to try fixing young people's image of power plants as places where their grandfathers used to work, and we've also made our websites a lot more kid-friendly," added Hughes. "We found it was important to meet young people's preference for working within about 40 to 50 miles of where they grew up, because if they got training and experience further away, then they would often move back later. Consequently, we started recruiting within 40 to 50 miles of our plants for positions at those facilities. Now they can earn an associates degree and go to work earning $60,000 per year."

Hughes reported that 31 students have already completed the first year of Luminant Academy's program, another 43 students were just awarded scholarships at Texas State Technical College, and the program's first graduates will go to work in May 2013.

When you add recent high school graduates to the mix, many organizations today employ a mix of four generations of individuals, each of which has been shaped by shared life experiences, explained Terry Taylor of Global Genesis. The present four-generation workforce consists primarily of:

  • Traditionalists, born before 1945, faced the Great Depression and World War II, and are hardworking, stable, detail-oriented and thorough, but are hesitant to disagree or buck the system and are less comfortable with new technologies;
  • Baby Boomers, born 1945-65, grew up with economic prosperity, civil rights struggles, the Vietnam War and Watergate, and are knowledgeable, experienced, service-oriented and have a team perspective, but have less respect for governments and institutions, often have a harder time balancing work and family, and also are reluctant to go against peers;
  • Generation X, born 1965-80: are latch-key kids that faced divorce rates triple those of earlier generations, and so developed independence, resilience and adaptability to the growing technological explosion, but also are skeptical and distrustful of authority. They're also devoted to balancing work and family and demand flexible work environments.
  • Generation Y, born after 1980, were raised in the most child-centric era in history and are the first completely technologically savvy generation. They're optimistic, able to multitask, driven to learn and respectful when communicating, but they also need supervision and mentoring about people, and they often reject the concept of paying dues.

Taylor explained it's crucial to pay attention and address the very different perceptions of work and life that characterize each generation. "When working with on multigenerational team you have to ask yourself: ‘How do you know what you notice is true? Or is it maybe just a perception?' Different generations perceive and act differently," explained Taylor. "The core values of all these generations—family, home, success and stability—are usually the same, but they way they act and handle them is different, and this is reflected in their teams."

Taylor added that key strategies for managing multi-generation teams include:

  • Respect and accommodate difference when practical and possible, but don't be trapped by them.
  • Balance generational differences by respecting commonalities.
  • Be aware of team members' personal generational patterns and biases and keep them from getting in the way of supporting team members.
  • Establish team rules that help guide cross-generation interactions and try to acknowledge and understand those differences.
  • Match team challenges and tasks to members with the appropriate mix of abilities and experience.
  • Develop and manage multi-mode means of communications.
  • Develop each team member's understanding of the work styles of members from other generations and how they define respect, feeling valued and motivated.

Finally, Diana Oreck reported that Ritz-Carlton provides "legendary service" by creating and reinforcing—in short, through daily meetings—a culture that empowers its staff to routinely go out of their way to serve their guests. "Our staff are self-directed to surprise and delight our guests," said Oreck. "This comes from consistency that creates trust in our staff and in our guests, and the crucial role of our leadership in service excellence. Our motto is that ‘We're ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.' It just becomes part of every generation working at Ritz-Carlton and who they are. Every team and organization needs to articulate its culture because it's your moral compass."

Ritz-Carlton also encourages its staff to anticipate and fulfill their guests' unexpressed wishes by having their "radar on and antennas up," and generally keeping their mind off autopilot. "We jazz up all our generations by promising that they'll be working in an environment of respect and trust, and who wouldn't want to work in place like that? We also emphasize, not just functions of their tasks, such as cleaning a room, but also the purpose of each job, which is to create a caring home away from home." 

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