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Cover Story

November 2, 2009
Volume 87, Number 44
pp. 53 - 55

Courting Generation Y

Companies revamp programs to attract and retain young superstars

Susan Ainsworth

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Air Products
GREEN VOLUNTEERS: Generation Y employees at Air Products travel on a hydrogen-fueled bus to educate local schoolchildren on the benefits of this alternative fuel of the future. Pictured from left are Carla DeBonis, John Palazzolo, Bossert, Jamie Ralph, Dan Krinsky, and Derek Reinhard. Air Products
GREEN VOLUNTEERS Generation Y employees at Air Products travel on a hydrogen-fueled bus to educate local schoolchildren on the benefits of this alternative fuel of the future. Pictured from left are Carla DeBonis, John Palazzolo, Bossert, Jamie Ralph, Dan Krinsky, and Derek Reinhard.
Chapman Eastman Chemical

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CONFIDENT: Generation Y scientists at Dow Chemical include Pierre (front); second row, from left: Erin Vogel and Lidaris San Miguel Rivera; third row, from left: Kwanho Chang, Nahrain Kamber, and Liang Hong. Dow Chemical
CONFIDENT Generation Y scientists at Dow Chemical include Pierre (front); second row, from left: Erin Vogel and Lidaris San Miguel Rivera; third row, from left: Kwanho Chang, Nahrain Kamber, and Liang Hong.

Move over baby boomers and Generation X, a third generation—Generation Y—is streaming into the chemical industry and bringing along a new attitude and high workplace expectations.

Generation Y is not like the baby boomers who live to work or Generation Xers who work to live. Instead, this generation—born between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s—“values work, but they also really value life beyond work,” says Tina Kao, global leader of research, talent, and organizational consulting at Hewitt Associates, a human resources consulting firm. “They want to enjoy life. They want to live in the moment, and they want to live meaningfully.”

Having grown up amid the first recycling campaigns and threats of global warming, those in Generation Y are as eager to make a difference in society at large as they are to make an impact in their new careers. “Gen Y folks want achievement and they want it fast,” Kao says. “They want frequent feedback from their employers and managers on how they are doing and what their next step is.”

Thanks in large part to social technologies such as MySpace and Facebook, those in Generation Y have taken networking to a new level. Not surprisingly, they are also tech savvy, love working on teams, and are comfortable with ethnic and cultural diversity, because that’s all they’ve ever known.

Faced with this skilled yet demanding generation, companies are scrambling to attract, manage, and retain these employees, who are mostly under 30 years old.

Even during the current recession, when companies seem to be focused on layoffs, major chemical companies say they are aggressively recruiting the best talent in Generation Y. This generation rivals the baby boomers in number and, they say, represents the future of their organizations.

Attracting Generation Y “is actually more important than ever,” says Michael R. Kannisto, manager of staffing, university relations, and employment branding at BASF. “With so many people out of work, it may seem that there is more talent out there to hire, but that’s actually not true. If I were to post a job for a position here at BASF today, I’d get a record number of responses, but I would find only a few people who we would really want to hire,” he says.

“Even though Generation Y is a big group, when you begin to look at how few of these people actually go into science and engineering, it gets very frightening very quickly,” Kannisto says. “For a technology-based company like ours that wants to pursue a diverse workforce, it’s going to be really tough. So, we are actually ramping up our recruitment even in a year when times are tough because it has very serious implications moving forward.”

Dow Chemical, too, is focused on attracting Generation Y. “We have a number of game-changing technology projects in our R&D pipeline that will require the skills of Generation Y scientists,” says Alveda J. Williams, Dow’s R&D leader for strategic recruitment and its Research Assignments Program. “We cannot afford to let top scientific talent slip through our fingers just because the country is in the midst of an economic downturn,” she says. “We are pleased to say that we have already been able to make offers to some of the best candidates out there.”

Attracting Generation Y superstars isn’t easy. Companies can’t use the same techniques that they used to lure those in previous generations. At Eastman Chemical, “we have significantly changed our presentation style on campus,” says Sharon Pugh, staffing manager at Eastman. “Gone are the days of relying on traditional PowerPoint slides. This generation prefers information conveyed in a very dynamic way. We use a mix of technology in our recruiting,” including face-to-face meetings, e-mails, videos, brochures, and multimedia presentations, she says.

Many companies are now taking a viral approach to recruiting. For example, they are “creating really cool ads or videos that Gen Yers can pass along among friends via social media websites,” Hewitt’s Kao says. These recruiting tools allow companies to “promote themselves in an exponential way.” It also allows them to provide “very specific testimonials or details on the day in the life of an employee” at a given company, which is just the kind of information that Gen Y craves, she says.

Recognizing the uniqueness of Gen Y, BASF created a Facebook page a year ago for recruiting into the company’s Professional Development Program (PDP). The program brings new university graduates into the company, where they complete a series of rotational assignments. Instead of relying on its corporate communications staff to create the page, BASF entrusted the project to its PDP participants. Through the resulting “BASF PDP Past and Present” Facebook page, users can now share advice on everything from finding local apartments to honing interview techniques. “We are connecting and collaborating with people who have not even had an interview with us yet,” Kannisto says.

Air Products & Chemicals has also turned to its younger workers for advice on how to tap social media sites for recruiting purposes. Interns there are now creating two-minute-or-less YouTube videos about their experience working at the company, according to Tracey Saccani, manager of Air Products’ 50-year-old Career Development Program (CDP), which offers new employees a wide range of assignment choices.

Air Products is also appealing to Generation Y’s commitment to the greater good; specifically for this group, it recently created a “green brochure” that summarizes the company’s socially responsible and environmentally conscious initiatives. “To be honest, we didn’t even have that information readily available until we started getting requests for it from students,” Saccani says.

It was Eastman’s “track record of bringing innovative, socially responsible ideas to the chemical industry” that enticed 28-year-old Peter Chapman to accept a position as an automation development chemist there. Noting that Eastman was just named one of the top 100 “Greenest Big Companies in America” by Newsweek, “it is a company I can feel good about working for,” he says.

Once on board, Generation Y gets satisfaction from getting involved in green initiatives and community service projects within their new organizations. In addition to satisfying their desire to contribute, these activities also indulge Generation Y’s passion for collaboration. To catalyze their collaborative bent, BASF is putting together cross-functional teams of workers for community service projects. For example, in February, the company’s PDP employees spent a day volunteering for Habitat for Humanity in Morris County, N.J.

“The work experience is not an individualistic experience for Generation Y. It is really more of a community experience for many of these young talents,” Kao says. Savvy companies are working to build on that sense of community in a number of different informal or formal ways, including sending groups of people through mentoring or training classes together, she says.

By clustering employees in project teams, classes, or other events, companies “can create a stickiness, not only between employees and the company but also among the employees themselves,” Kao says. “It’s a very powerful way to engage and retain employees.” And that is critical given that it can be difficult to retain Generation Y workers because they have a tendency to change jobs more frequently than their baby boomer or Generation X counterparts, she says.

With Gen Y retention in mind, many companies are also providing tools that enable employees to connect electronically. For example, Dow Chemical and Air Products have set up the technology to allow their employees to instant message each other. Although older employees initially viewed instant messaging as a purely social outlet, it is a means by which Generation Y prefers to work, Air Products’ Saccani says.

“We appreciate the fact that we can send an instant message or e-mail or locate information on the Internet within a matter of seconds,” says 27-year-old Meera Datta, a process engineer in Air Products’ Engineering Development Program under the company’s CDP. “In the age of technology, those in Generation Y want to get their information as quickly as possible. Efficiency is key.”

Like many in her generation, which thrives on multitasking, Datta is at home with new technology. “IPods, iPhones, e-mail, and virtual communication have become a way of life—both at home and in the workplace,” she says.

To satisfy Generation Y’s appetite for electronic communication, BASF is using the Web to interact with its employees. The company now gives new employees the option of getting orientation materials through a series of podcasts that can be loaded onto their iPods. In the past, that information was conveyed only through a handbook or PowerPoint presentation, Kannisto says. “The podcasts are just another way of acknowledging the needs of Generation Y.”

To meet their younger employees’ networking needs, BASF recently set up an interactive blog for its chief executive officer for the North American region, Kurt Bock. Employees can now post comments or questions for him after he video blogs his views on issues of immediate importance to the company. The CEO blog represents “a major departure for BASF,” says Kannisto, noting that the company has come a long way in its thinking. “We blocked employees from accessing Facebook at work only a year ago.”

Through the blog, BASF is also acknowledging Generation Y’s desire to connect with colleagues at all levels of their organizations. Compared with baby boomers and Generation X, those in Generation Y are less formal and less concerned with what they see as the unnecessary formalities associated with traditional hierarchies. Titles don’t mean as much to them as they do to their older peers.

Cynthia Pierre, a 28-year-old senior research engineer who joined Dow’s Research Assignments Program in July, explains: “We are so used to communicating with a broad spectrum of people using digital media that the barriers to communication are often completely broken down.” Whether it involves a peer or someone in upper management, “we view every communication—sending an e-mail or a text message or meeting face-to-face—as an opportunity to enhance our network,” she says.

From Gen Y’s perspective, their organizations are flat, says BASF’s Kannisto. That perception has also influenced the way this generation maps its career paths, he says. Generation Y rejects the notion “that there is only one way to the top. They don’t buy the idea that there is only one ladder and that it can only be tackled rung by rung, year by year, and decade by decade before you get your reward,” he says. Instead, they are considerably more open to lateral moves than other groups of workers, he says.

Companies “are increasingly exploring the notion of matrixed career development, where lateral or horizontal career moves are just as valued as vertical moves,” Kao says. Through these programs, companies can provide more career options and satisfy Gen Y’s desire for frequent movement, feedback, and rewards while retaining them within the company, she says.

Climbing the proverbial corporate ladder is not the short-term goal of Ph.D. chemist Amanda Josey, who joined BASF’s PDP in July 2008. Instead, she plans to make several lateral moves within the company “to build a diverse set of skills and experiences to better prepare myself for an executive position,” she says. Working for a large company like BASF affords her the opportunity to try new positions every two to four years without changing employers and losing benefits, says Josey, who is currently working as a technical marketing and innovation specialist for the chemical intermediates business in North America.

Pierre, too, welcomes the idea of being able to move through various positions as part of Dow’s Research Assignments Program. At the end of November, when she leaves her four-month stint in Dow Automotive Systems, she will rotate into a six-month assignment in Dow Electronic Materials. By making this move, “I will feel like I am changing jobs because I will be working in a radically different R&D area,” she says. But because of the way that Dow is organized, she will remain within the company’s R&D function while being supported by various businesses. “I love the breadth and depth of Dow’s research platform. I’m passionate about the extremely rich, scientifically intriguing, and market-relevant work I am doing; it is what keeps me here,” she says.

Independent and confident, those in Generation Y “are fairly savvy about their career goals, and they come in the door and tell you that up front,” Dow’s Williams says. “They ask the right questions and are always inquiring about opportunities for training and advancement.” In addition to honing their core technical skills, Gen Y scientists and engineers are also increasingly interested in developing nontechnical competencies, Hewitt’s Kao says. They want to develop broad leadership skills, build management capabilities, foster their creativity, and learn about communications and global teamwork, she adds.

Chemical engineer Nick Bossert, 25, is embracing the opportunity he now has to build his business skills in his supply-chain role in Air Products’ tonnage gases business. Through the position, he can build on the technical experience he has gained through previous assignments in the firm’s CDP, he says. He is currently developing technology for new low-cost gas plants that are tailored to specific customer needs. “It’s exciting to see how the technical and commercial aspects of a job complement each other,” he says.

Although Generation Y wants to grow in their careers, they also value their time outside work. To keep their youngest employees engaged and happy, companies are offering or expanding flexible work programs that allow them to telecommute, work part time, share jobs, or structure their working hours in nontraditional ways, Kao says.

“Now and into the future, it is critical for those in our generation to strike a balance between success at work and success at home and with our families,” Air Products’ Datta says. Like many in Generation Y, “we want to contribute strategically in our jobs, but we also want to be able to attend our children’s soccer games at the same time,” she says.

Although flexible work programs have been in place in many companies for a long time, Generation Y is using them much more than older generations have. “They are educating the boomers on the benefits of work-life balance,” observes Barb Paluszek, Air Products’ human resources manager. “They are showing us that we can leave early to take care of our personal needs and then get back online at home that night if we need to catch up.”

As Generation Y moves into positions of leadership, it is also likely to influence colleagues in other ways, says Eastman’s Pugh. “Adding this new generation to the mix can only mean that we will have another perspective to help us create innovative new products that improve people’s lives and generate profits, all while protecting the planet at the same time.”

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