Many Salt Lake City business owners are challenged with operating expenses and finding ways to pay a wage to their employees that will meet cost of living demands.  Our Workforce Development Manager Jake Maxwell shares his experiences from the field and offers his point of view in a series we call “Workforce Friday” to keep the conversation going.  As always, we’d love to hear your feedback.

America is seeing a dramatic shift in the reliable norms of who works which jobs. For example, our plumbers, welders, machinists, and carpenters are getting harder to find. This might be due to the fact that these jobs have lost their prestige with our younger people who are now exposed to so much information, they have a much better idea of which careers are out there and which careers they want. These jobs now have an aging workforce who will soon retire with few people to fill the demand.

Another phenomenon is the dramatic drop in high school kids taking jobs, even during the summer. There are a few reasons for this, including the increase of summer enrollment in school, an increase in unpaid internships, and an increase in minimum wages. This may cause employers to not want to take the same risk on a young, inexperienced kid. This can have a serious impact on our new workforce when they become our interns, our leaders, and our managers. We are finding more employers stating that “millennials” no longer have the soft skills they need to be successful in their role.

Coming within the next few years is a crossroads, where the statistical decline in young person employment in those “entry level jobs” intersects with the increase of retiring blue collar (and white collar) workforce. This creates a space for something interesting which is already starting to happen. Many of the jobs that high school kids might want are now being taken by our retired workforce who are working at an older age. This is becoming particularly prevalent as retirement packages are not performing as well as folks had hoped and planned.

The questions is, do we want to see things swing back to where kids work these jobs at a younger age to learn those “soft skills,” or do we need to set our sights on new priorities and find ways to capture them early to grow them in your own business?

I’ll add another layer of complexity. Teens are becoming much more sensitive and responsive to the social norms of their peers. With social media, kids have become flooded with feedback of what is socially acceptable and not acceptable. This makes navigating the “prestige” of a job much more complicated. Many of those fun summer jobs are no longer cool. With the added weight of feeling shamed so publicly, kids are much more cautious of making the wrong choice and are much more informed of what their choices are.

Now back to our older workforce. What are they saying about “millennials” and is it good or bad? Millennials have been stigmatized into being lazy, aloof, and distracted but also overly ambitious. The question I always want to ask is around how much of our frustration is centered around the way we did things growing up, the way we achieved our success and how we might feel kids need to follow the same path. Young people want to work with companies who have values and a good mission. I never looked for that in my first jobs. They appreciate social causes and making the world a better place. This to me creates some great opportunities.

I happen to be a millennial as well, but the big difference is that I played Oregon Trail in school while kids now are designing apps in high school. I worked several jobs in high school where I might now be shamed on social media for working those jobs. If you are a leader coping with this collision of the incoming millennials, it helps to adopt an outward mindset and ask, “What are their needs, objectives, and challenges> Do they fit the company mission and how can I mentor them?”

This does not mean, “How do I make them like me?” Rather, “How to I share my valuable lessons learned, my social capital, and take a risk on them to help them succeed in their own way?” I challenge our leaders to get curious! Get to know who our young people are!

While I hear the frustration about our young people, I also hear how fascinating and creative and ambitious they are. The “millennial” is also aware of what jobs are out there, who pays more, and who has a ping pong table. So to push against the new workforce might only create training waste and hiring challenges.

If schools are becoming more tech-centric and trying to appeal to the new style of learning, I think it’s prudent for businesses to not feel they are surrendering their values to take steps toward providing a great learning space for young people, given the new challenges they might face and the new ways they think and learn. The challenge comes from treating all ages the same when it appears as though the young people can get away with being young while the rest of us only check our phones on our breaks. Regardless of how that gets sorted out, businesses are learning that their fresh perspectives and creativity can only better your business.