business-meeting-1239185In the Art of Leadership Conference in Vancouver this past September, a number of speakers referenced how the fight to attract and retain employees will be the biggest challenge for employers in the coming ten years. Virginia Brailey, ADP Canada VP of Marketing and Strategy, suggested that this is the beginning of a profound talent shortage.

We knew this was coming; we’ve all grown up with the stats on changing demographics and how boomer retirements will affect the workforce. What we didn’t know was how the personality traits of the next generation would intensify the situation.  Bailey suggests that we learn to understand the next generation of workers quickly, so we can make adjustments to the workplace that enable us to land and keep employees. But she warns that this new workforce has a complex relationship with work that most work places are not prepared to address. For example:

  1. We all know that technology has disrupted the workforce. Employees can work from anywhere, and expect to do so. They certainly don’t want to be limited by the four walls of your offices.
  2. Extensive surveying suggests that the next generation of workers cares less about the prestige of title and money, and more about the values of a company, and access to education. I’m not sure I agree with all of this – in my experience, even fairly junior people are demanding higher salaries – proving once again the law of supply and demand. But I’ve participated in numerous recruitment attempts and whereas years ago, lawyers and accountants wouldn’t have asked as much about a firm’s culture and values, that comes up a lot lately and has even been cited as the reason for acceptance or rejection of an offer. (BTW, young professionals are also asking about the existence of a firm’s strategic plan and marketing strategy).
  3. New workers don’t wait to “earn” benefits such as top notch technology, education, access to travel, regular salary increases and bonuses…they expect these things as part of the offer. Firm HR departments see this as the entitled generation; young workers see this as green’s fees.
  4. They want a particular kind of education. It used to be sufficient to give someone work they could be proud to do. Then the focus was on providing on-the-job training and help with advancement. Today, the education emphasis is on training them for their next job, and helping them to develop the soft skills that will see them through no matter how many times they’ll need to change jobs or even careers.
  5. Despite offering great salaries and educational investment, employers can’t expect loyalty in return. This new worker generation moves on average every two to three years.

To be fair, some employers have already caught up to these challenges and are responding with their own tough employment stance. For example, the technology industry predominantly hires what they jokingly call “temporary full-time workers” who are laid off whenever the need arises.   Bailey agrees that increasingly, permanent employment is disappearing: for some, options will be limited to temporary or semi-permanent employment.

So how does a firm ensure it can continue to be fully staffed?

  • Make yourself appealing. Running your business the same way it has been run for the past twenty years may be the surest way to ensure its demise. If you want good staff, you probably need to change. Become more team-based. Develop a more sociable culture within your firm.   Pump up your training program. Lighten up on demands of hours or location of work.
  • Happy, engaged workers are less likely to move. Make them feel more valued by getting them on committees and task forces, and asking them “what do you think?”  Acknowledge people by recognizing their efforts – personally and publically – and even saying “thank you”.  William James said that the deepest urge in human nature is to be important; and that the deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated. It doesn’t cost anything, really.
  • Place more emphasis on HR and your training programs. The armed forces tend to have three and four start generals in charge of recruitment and training, but most service firms put HR under the direction of a mid-level manager.   Get more serious about who runs your talent management division, and how. Spend more on training.   Ensure your training program includes soft skills training: mediation and negotiation skills, high level interpersonal and communication skills, mentoring, etc. Teach them concepts that will help them to be better at their job regardless of what it will be in three years. And hopefully, that job will be with you.
  • Most importantly, listen more. In the professional services environment there is usually a wide age difference in practitioners, and the culture often supports opinion by leaders, and silence by juniors. You can’t truly lead and remain aloof from the people who do the work. Smart firms realize that all levels can learn from each other. Smart managers take the time to regularly meet with and listen to their more junior professionals and their staff members. You’ll probably learn something valuable about how your business runs, what your clients are saying, and how the marketplace is reacting.
  • And finally, recognize that talent is global. Consider expanding your search beyond your city, province or county’s borders. A lateral from Winnipeg won’t necessarily be able to bring with them a book of business. But a younger lawyer or accountant who needs to learn the ropes in a certain service area will be starting at the bottom anyway, so getting someone from next door or from across the country won’t really make a difference. Go for the best person.

The landscape isn’t shifting: it’s shifted. We either need to address the talent shortage, or fundamentally change the business model. While there have been subtle shifts in our business model over the years, there’s a limit to what we can do on that front because ultimately, professional services sell knowledge. Our delivery mechanism includes professionals and support staff. Without them, there is no business. An unlike other industries, we can’t be entirely replaced by technology (yet). Our only hope is to understand and engage this new generation of workers – on their terms.