Watch out world, here they come. The largest generation ever is poised to take over half the workforce by 2020. What does it take to recruit—and retain—the best?

At the age of 23, Ben Zimmer is an industrial engineer making an impact. Six months into his job at Glatfelter’s Chillicothe, Ohio, plant, he was tapped to find ways to effectively reduce trim loss for the global paper manufacturer.

Using a recently implemented software system designed to minimize trim loss, he began delving into the data and recommending changes. Since that time, trim loss is down .24 percent across three Ohio paper machines.

“It doesn’t sound like a lot, but with the amount of paper we make, it’s a lot,” says Zimmer. In just one area, savings now top $192,000 a year. However, Zimmer is quick to deflect praise.

“I’m happy with the path I’m on. If I can keep having these projects that challenge me and are complex, that would be sufficient for me,” says Zimmer. “As long as I can make a value-added change for the business, then I feel useful.”

Like Zimmer, millions of millennials are taking the world’s workforce by storm. But are they really all that different from those who’ve come before?
Let’s start by looking at the numbers.

Hovering around 86 million, the millennial generation is 7 percent larger than the baby-boom generation, which came of age in the 1970s and early ’80s. The Pew Research Center defines “adult millennials” as those who are 18 to 33 years old and born between 1981 and 1996, essentially those who began reaching adulthood in the year 2000.

“As employers looking at [these numbers], obviously, we need to be able to attract and retain this generation as they come into work,” says Don Hadley, director of human resources for Glatfelter’s Specialty Papers Business Unit. By 2020, U.S. millennials are expected to be 50 percent of the workforce and 40 percent of the electorate.

Hadley notes, at times, this [millennial] generation gets a bad rap in the business arena. Characterized as job hoppers, not willing to pay their dues, overly sensitive to criticism, and too dependent on their parents, millennials often face sideways glances from older coworkers, starting from day one.

But, they are also known for being tech savvy, confident, affable, and tolerant. They’re great multitaskers who relish the chance to voice their opinions on workplace decisions, seeking substantive work early in their careers.

Stereotypes aside, organizations must adjust workplace dynamics to effectively attract, manage, and retain these workers in order to position the company for future success.

Millennials at work

“Millennials are the first generation to grow up with computers in their homes, but we also remember life before cell phones and iPads,” says Eric Burkhardt, a 30-year-old territory sales manager for Glatfelter and based out of his home in Dallas. “As a result, I feel we have a sensitivity to our parents’ culture, when the world was less connected, but we also feel like we are members of a global population.”

Research suggests technology and the birth of social media have developed a strong sense of interconnectedness—both global and local—among millennials, fueling a desire for them to work for companies characterized as positive, environmentally friendly, and socially responsible.

Millennials at work

They actively seek balance between work and life. “From what we’ve seen, they work hard, they get their things done—they’re not lazy,” says Hadley. “But they certainly put value to life, and their lives don’t center around just being at work all of the time.”

Multitasking is another strength of millennial workers, possibly because they may become bored if only allowed to focus on one thing at a time. Some might say they crave instant gratification and recognition, but Hadley suggests it’s more a desire to know that what they are doing is important and that they’re on the right track.

Millennials are also team players and tech savvy, making them a perfect fit for cross-functional teams. Burkhardt, for example, is part of a team implementing a new sales management software system that will streamline the sales process throughout Glatfelter.

Attracting millennials

As an inventory and master data specialist with Glatfelter, 27-year-old Mary Butchers uses her love for analytics and data mining to research sales trends, better utilize inventory, and calculate targets for new or existing material to make it available for customer use.
Butchers, as a new mom and with the company only two years, also knows firsthand how quickly changes can happen. She appreciates Glatfelter’s steady course that is focused on the future. “It’s the resilience amongst the ever changing world—and the openness to innovation—that makes it such a unique company for a young person to work for and appreciate,” she says.

Butchers’s sentiments reflect those of millions of millennials seeking work at organizations focused on innovation and corporate responsibility. But those sought-after qualities aren’t unique to Google or tech startups of the world. Those qualities can be found within any industry and any size company. It’s really about branding, says Hadley.
Glatfelter, for example, focuses on the organization’s sustainability efforts, commitment to innovation, and opportunities for employees to serve in their communities.

Hadley also stresses the importance of corporate transparency, particularly when bringing millennials on board. To avoid disappointing millennial workers in the future, clearly map out the position and aligned compensation at which employees will start and the possible career progressions over the next three years of their employment. Be sure to convey potential earnings associated with each step.

Mapping out a plan may also help employees better envision their future and how they can fit with the organization. Despite being the most educated generation ever, the connection isn’t always immediately recognizable.

According to Hadley, many young millennials often flounder a bit when creating the connection between their education and how that translates into a particular role at any given organization. “So, being able to have them recognize that there is a fit with our organization, and how they fit, is important,” says Hadley.

Keeping them—and
keeping them happy

Jason Corpus is a 30-year-old utilities area process manager in charge of the water department at Glatfelter’s Chillicothe plant. He’s focused on keeping the company sustainable for the long term, particularly through conservation efforts, an area of importance for both his millennial generation and Glatfelter.

“I think that that’s going to be a big role in what I do in the next five years. Before you know it, we’re going to be pushed to a point where we have to consider big ideas and big projects in order to stay functional and running. That’s something I’m excited about,” says Corpus.

Millennials relish the opportunity to make a significant impact right away. “They aren’t going to wait five or 10 years to get promoted,” says Hadley. “They clearly want to know what’s next, [and] what am I going to be doing.”

Hadley suggests organizations consider step—or layered—progression to provide advancement opportunities for millennials. Rather than just, for example, sales representative to sales manager, include several intermediate steps along the way, such as senior sales representative that would incorporate new responsibilities and an increase in pay.

Millennials also appreciate mentoring relationships, as many were close with their parents and coaching figures growing up. For example at Glatfelter, college co-ops are paired with an experienced leader who can provide career and professional advice to the up-and-coming engineers, as well as help them adjust to the work environment. Mentors serve as a “good listener” or “sounding board” for the co-ops. The hope is to retain these young professionals full time after graduation.

Recognition, too, is important for millennials. “There’s going to be a need to kind of shift our recognition programs away from what has been traditional in the paper industry,” says Hadley. Recognizing 25 years of service with a gold watch just won’t work anymore. Instead, millennials want to know that what they are doing is making a positive impact and is a valuable contribution to the organization.

Anyone younger than 50. That’s who was targeted for the Young Innovators group that was started in 2014 by the Print Services Distributors Association (PSDA), a large printing trade organization in the forest products industry.

“To me, it’s kind of comical because that’s (50 years old) young in our industry, but it really is,” says John DeMarco, west regional sales manager for Glatfelter and a founding member of Young Innovators.

“It’s not sexy. Paper and printing is not viewed by a lot of people as being progressive or super exciting,” he adds. In response, the PSDA Young Innovators are looking to promote the positives of the industry and adapt management skills to encourage millennials to consider the forest products industry. 

With a mature workforce and an industry contracting in the face of market pressures, now is the time to make connections between the old and young—a fact not lost on the new generation. “There’s so much knowledge [within older generations]. You can’t lose sight of what’s been laid down before us,” says Corpus.

At Glatfelter, millennial workers—across all functions, from HR and marketing to finance and operations—are spearheading teams that take advantage of new technology, streamline processes, improve conservation, and reduce waste.

“Whether they’re (millennials) researching something to put a new program together, or trying to improve productivity issues, they’ve got so much data they can pull together. They can come up with very good ideas,” says Hadley.

And good ideas, from young and old, fuel tomorrow’s growth.