How Westchester's Companies are Adapting to Millennials

Some local companies are finding it best to change culture to develop the next generation of workers.



When it comes to millennials, stereotypes abound: They all too often switch their attention between media—smartphones, computers, televisions. And all that texting has certainly taken a toll on their written English. But these and other unfavorable stereotypes (to which millennials, like me, take offense) don’t tell the full story. 

The less newsworthy items rarely make headlines. Like, for instance, how millennials are the most educated generation in American history. According to salary profile database PayScale, more millennials working full-time have MBAs than have no college education at all. Furthermore, studies show they value meaning, transparency, and social connections in the workplace, not to mention opportunities to give back to the community.

Whatever your take on these 18- to 30-year-olds, there’s no denying that, in terms of the workplace, they’ve upended working norms, particularly the notion of employee loyalty. According to the experts who took part in our “Recruiting & Retaining Top Talent” roundtable, their average stay at a job is just 18 months. And, since millennials already account for 36 percent of the workforce—and by 2020 will account for 46 percent—it’s high time Westchester businesses find out how best to attract, retain, and grow these tech-savvy, job-hopping, multi-tasking 20-somethings. So we spoke with local human resources professionals, professors, managers of companies large and small, as well as some millennials, and found some interesting trends.

There are, of course, some unyielding holdouts, like Robert Cioffi, CEO of Progressive Computing Inc. in Yonkers, who, in terms of millennials, is business as usual. “As CEO of my company, I would not cater to millennials, or any other group for that matter, at the risk of compromising [company] values,” says Cioffi. “People are either a fit for us or not.”

But there are those, from multinational companies to boutique agencies, who are finding it better for business—and the next generation of workers—to adapt culture and management to attract, hire, and retain millennials.

 

Hiring and Attracting

Donald Zinn, managing partner at Exigent Search Partners Inc., an executive search firm in White Plains, says that hiring millennials is, in many ways, exactly like hiring any other employee. The key, though, is to understand and convey the behaviors that mesh well with your environment, which, he says, “has nothing to do with a millennial.” But there’s reason to believe that millennials need thorough vetting on this front, thanks to lofty expectations due, in part, to what Richard Greenwald calls the “Facebook effect.” Millennials think “they’re going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg,” says Greenwald, president of The Concorde Staffing Group in White Plains. So to hedge against unmet expectations, both sides must make a few things abundantly clear. For the millennial: In what type of work environment do you envision yourself? For the company: Are you highly collaborative and seeking someone with social savvy and group smarts, in which case the “Facebook effect” might actually work to your advantage? Or are you buttoned-up and client-focused with little appetite for fun?

Lou DePippo of The Inner Group, a Peekskill-based advertising agency, uses the entrepreneur card to attract young talent. Anyone he hires must be willing to be held accountable, not only for managing client accounts, but also soliciting new ones. “We look for someone who is more of an opportunist,” he says. In turn, he offers a clearly defined path to an ownership stake in the company. “We always discuss with people that, if they do well enough, they could, at the very least, make associate, and, at the very best, make partner.” But first, he vets potential young hires to determine whether they possess the entrepreneurial spirit required to flourish there. “Ninety to 95 percent of [candidates] we speak to probably don’t get it—they’re uncertain when a really good opportunity is put in front of them,” says DePippo. “If you can’t feel it and you can’t see it, then you’re really not for us, and I’d rather go through 100 people in interviews until I get to that person.”

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc., in Tarrytown lures millennials with the Silicon Valley approach, offering perks like shuttles to and from the White Plains and Tarrytown train stations; tuition reimbursement of up to $10,000 annually; pre-paid weekly visits from an ice cream truck; a fitness center; an on-site cafeteria; a slew of clubs and organized sports teams; and employee-organized cultural events, like a recent Bali-themed celebration that featured henna tattoos, music, and Balinese food. “We deliberately courted the kind of West Coast tech feel to the layout of the campus here,” says Paul Davies, vice president of Human Resources. To that extent, they have breakout rooms, kitchens, and Wii, recognizing that hard-working employees need to also “stimulate another part of their brain and be creative.” According to Joshua Mitchell, manager of Learning and Development, who, at 30, is on the cusp of the millennial generation, says that the perks serve to create a distinctive energy. “It feels like something to work here; there’s a sense of excitement and energy that you could only capture by being here.” Of course the perks attract employees, but they also keep them there. Turnover last year was just 4 percent of the workforce, compared to an industry average of 17 percent. 

 

While They’re on Staff

“There is this belief that they can take over the world,” says Jennifer Powell-Lunder, Psy.D, adjunct professor of Psychology at Pace University and co-author of Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual. “[Millennials] have been taught to be free thinkers—they’re very ambitious, they’re real self-starters, and they have good ideas.” Which is all well and good, but how can companies capitalize on this?

Purchase-based MasterCard organizes product-development initiatives around these millennial (or “YoPros,” as they’re called internally) traits. A spokesperson for the company said they find millennials are “masters at digital communications,” “comfortable and effective working in teams,” and “want to work on tough problems and find creative solutions.” It’s no wonder, then, that YoPros are enlisted in such projects as “Product Development Express,” during which they compete to develop product prototypes geared specifically toward young people in 48-hour, round-the-clock sessions, or an eight-week “Developers Contest,” which began in August 2012 to challenge YoPros to create new apps around MasterCard’s PayPass Tap & Go payment software. 

To promote the cross-pollination of ideas, Regeneron went as far as commissioning its own wiki, on which millennials are encouraged to post and comment. “We have really smart people and we want to make sure that there are enough ideas colliding together,” says Mitchell. At heart, Regeneron, a prescription drug company, is science-driven, so it does its part to build an idea-sharing culture around research to keep young scientists engaged. Young scientists, for instance, are encouraged to publish papers with lead scientists, and, at monthly “Beer and BS” meetings, white-coat-wearing millennials informally present their research to peers. 

 

Keep Them Around

According to a recent survey conducted by the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, 65 percent of millennials said the opportunity for personal development was the most influential factor in their current job. Whereas boomers may have been proud to say, “I work for GE,” millennials are more inclined to say they “do marketing” or “web development” at GE. The focus is on them and what they’re doing in the context of their career goals, and less so on their growth inside a given company. To that end, Luba Sydor, founder and CEO of White Plains-based executive recruiting firm Person 2 Person LLC, says millennials “believe they have a lot to offer” and they seek employers who recognize, validate, and capitalize on their potential. Regardless of whether your company is growing, millennials want to feel like they are. 

Daniella DiMartino, a 26-year-old account executive at Buzz Creators, a public relations agency in Valhalla, envisions herself running a business one day. That’s why she, like many others her age, is after mentorship, learning, and development in her job. Says DiMartino, “I wanted to work for someone who could lead me down a good path so that if I want to go out on my own or go to a large corporation five years down the line, I could go there with competence and confidence, knowing that I’ve learned a lot.” She’s a prime example of a millennial asking herself not only, “What am I learning?” but also, “Is it what I want to be learning in the environment I want to be learning it in?” 

At Grand Prix New York Racing in Mount Kisco, Vice President of Sales and Marketing Nat Mundy’s workforce is 90 percent millennials. At any given time, his staff is a mixed bag of high performers and won’t-lasts, but his standouts are often the ones motivated to pursue a career in hospitality. So to ensure that they feel they are growing, he promotes them to assistant manager, which means scheduling duties, training and disciplining lower ranks, and a say in important management decisions. Doing so shows “that they’ve stuck out to us” and “that they’re someone who can be given responsibility and can lead.” Whether it’s a promotion or an email, feedback is a critical part of retaining millennials.

Sydor says that “millennials love getting instantaneous feedback” and “were raised with constant coaching, so they’re expecting it in the workplace.” She advises focusing less on lengthy performance reviews, which the 30-plus crowd accepts as standard practice every quarter or every six months. Instead, aim for quicker feedback, whether it’s in the form of text messages or, if possible, metrics that measure performance in real time. 

Alternatively, PepsiCo in Purchase takes a longer approach, linking millennials with mentors high up in the company. The program, Conn3ct, brings together executive “sponsors” with younger mentees to focus on career development and growth. The program started as a simple effort to bring millennials together with PepsiCo’s leaders at quarterly dinners, and has since evolved into a company-wide initiative that PepsiCo relies on to not only mentor young talent, but also to hear what’s important to them. For example, millennials are able to use Conn3ct as a forum to voice their desire to work for a company that values environmental sustainability and corporate responsibility.

As Greenwald says, “The days of someone doing the same job for 20 years is over.” So your best bet is to maximize your time with millennials while you have it. And though their drive to improve, learn, and grow to ultimately market themselves to better reach their goals may not serve your long-term interests, they will almost certainly serve your interests for longer if you pay attention to their wants and needs in the workplace. 

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