Editor's note: This is the fourth in an eight-part series (BusinessWeek.com, 11/17/08) of Viewpoints by author Don Tapscott, who draws on the $4 million research project that inspired his new book, Grown Up Digital, to explain how digital technology has affected the children of the baby boomers, a group he calls the Net Generation.
As companies restructure to survive this recession, they have an opportunity that could make them significantly stronger in the future. Managers now have a chance to lower the age of their workforce by hiring the best young people they can find. Once the recession is over, the smart companies that have hired top young talent will be in a prime position to survive the next war: the war for talent. As one of my clients said to me, "A recession is a terrible thing to waste."
The question now is: How do you find the best young people, and how do you keep them?
The War for Talent
The Net Generation, as I describe the young people under 30 who've grown up digital, are challenging for traditional companies to hire and retain. They have different expectations, attitudes, and skills from boomers like me. They want to have fun at work, and work off-site or at odd hours, if possible. They are more likely than their parents were to balance work and family life, or to demand that their job be reconfigured to fit their needs. They like to collaborate, and won't necessarily respect the lines of authority to do so. And they won't necessarily be loyal to their employer. If another firm offers more money or a better deal, they'll go.
Although some employers complain that Net Geners are spoiled brats who want all the perks without the effort (an opinion I do not share), employers need them. It's a straight issue of demographics that a recession cannot alter. In the next 10 years, as baby boomers retire, there won't be enough young people to fill up the management spots recently vacated. The war for talent may be temporarily eased by this recession, but it won't last forever, and when it ends, the competition for the best young people will be fiercer than ever.
Hiring the Net Gen Way
To hire them successfully, employers need to abandon the old human resources model—recruit, train, supervise, and retain. Young people who've been conditioned to expect a two-way conversation won't stay for long in a world run this way. Instead, employers need a new modus operandi. I sum it up this way: initiate, engage, collaborate, and evolve.
If you consider just the business of hiring, you'll see it's a whole new ball game. To find new people, companies used to place a classified ad or turn up at a college career day. Yet traditional advertising to attract young people is a complete waste of time. The smarter way is find young recruits online—with engaging and informative Web sites, with blogs and podcasts, plus some attractive multimedia material to distribute on Google's (GOOG) YouTube and/or the social network Facebook.
Studies show that online sites now hold 110 million jobs and 20 million unique résumés—10 million of them on Monster.com (MWW) alone. Some entire job search engines, such as www.hirediversity.com and http://naacp.monster.com, are devoted solely to diversity job recruitment. Savvy organizations will position themselves as an attractive Net Gen employer by providing authentic, uncensored blogs by Net Gen employees, a Hiring FAQ page in the form of a wiki, and a customer-service-like mechanism for answering candidates' questions in real-time chat.
No one is suggesting that social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn will replace your HR departments. But as my nGenera colleague Mike Dover puts it, "Any firm that does not deploy them as a recruiting tool, especially in the initial tracking stage, will find itself at a serious disadvantage."
Start Engaging Early
What happens when you get a prospect in the door? Old-style job interviews need to be replaced by a two-way dialogue. The Net Generation wants to make sure company values and corporate culture align with their own values and style. They've probably checked out the company online before the interview.
To keep Net Geners in your company, you have to see employment as a two-way engagement between employee and employer. It starts right away, during the traditional 90-day probationary period during which new recruits are assessed for their suitability. Nowadays, the company is on probation, too. Young employees regularly use this period to decide whether the employer is worth working for. Employers need to expose the new recruit to various leaders, work situations, and work content. Companies that make the effort will benefit from less turnover, shorter ramp-up periods, higher levels of engagement, and earlier and greater returns on their investments in young employees.
Supervision may be on the way out, too. Brad Anderson , chief executive of Best Buy (BBY), puts it this way: "The Net Geners we hire have enormous knowledge, unprecedented information, and facility with tools that in some areas is superior to their seniors." So the job of management is more to create the context whereby they can be successful, rather than to supervise them.
Let Them Go—and Hire Them Back
Retention over the long term may not be realistic either. You can't expect a Net Gener to stay with you forever. In one Canadian study of 18- to 34-year-olds, the average young person held five full-time (nonsummer) jobs by age 27. Yet these Net Geners can help you after they leave—as the alumni of great universities do. If you rehire them, you'll save money. Rehiring them costs half as much as it does to hire a brand-new person, and rehires are 40% more productive in their first quarter at work, according to the Harvard Business Review.
Net Geners can be challenging and even infuriating as employees (when they repeatedly ask you for feedback, for example). But the companies that hire them and adapt to their new ways will be able to learn from them the collaborative styles of working that could help them to survive now and in the future.
Don Tapscott recently led a survey of 11,000 young people around the world. He has written 12 widely read books on the impact of the Internet on society. His 1996 book Growing Up Digital defined the Net Generation and the sequel, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World, was recently published in Britain.