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Bridging The Generation Gap Between Employees

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As vice president of Gary’s Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc., Amarillo, Tex., Paula Ward has resigned herself to interviewing potential employees who seem dressed more appropriately for a vacation than a full-time job.

“Rather than being nicely dressed for an interview, the young guys usually wear T-shirts, flip flops, and baseball hats. I’ve even had some come in slurping coffee or a soft drink,” reports Ward.

A casual approach to the work environment—even to work itself—is one charge often leveled against Millennials, or those born between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s (also known as Generation Y). Other common perceptions about Millennials: They lack social skills and organizational commitment but, on the other hand, are tech-savvy and team-oriented.

Starting from scratch
Whether or not you agree with the broad generalizations about those under the age of 35, the fact remains, they are the leading candidates to fill your positions.

Successfully integrating them into your company requires consciously bridging the gap between baby boomer bosses or Generation X managers and those who grew up with computers and seemingly can’t survive without a Smartphone in hand.

In Ward’s case, for example, she has learned to look past first impressions and focus on attitude during a job interview. “If the person admits he doesn’t know anything about our industry but wants to learn—and seems easy to get along with—then I’ll hire him,” says Ward. “When people have a good attitude and are willing to work, I can always teach them the skills.”

Similarly, Michael DeJoseph prefers to hire young, entry-level employees and train them to provide excellent customer service. “We basically have a farm team here, and I usually recruit from the graduating classes of the trade schools,” says DeJoseph, owner of Bloomfield Cooling, Heating & Electric, Inc., in Little Falls, N.J. “My criteria are a high GPA and 100 percent attendance. I’m looking for the guy who wants to learn and will show up for work every day.” Of his 28 employees, half are currently in their 20s and 30s.

At 1st Service Co., Inc., in Bishopville, Md., 80 percent of Bob Lemley’s 10 employees are under age 35. Like DeJoseph, Lemley serves on the advisory board of a local trade school. That enables them to meet and speak with students about HVAC job opportunities. “Sometimes I bring along a younger employee, who is closer in age and can relate better to the students,” says Lemley.

To further 1st Service’s link to the younger generation, its employees often volunteer to judge the school’s skills competitions. Also, says Lemley, “We donate old equipment to the school, so students can take it apart and learn how everything works. Then they recycle the equipment and use the money for school programs.”

All new hires at Gary’s Heating & Air Conditioning, including trade school graduates, begin as install apprentices. “A lot of the younger workers seem offended starting at the bottom, but that’s how they get hands-on learning,” notes Ward, who gives a raise to employees after 90 days on the job. “It’s then up to them how fast they want to move up to the next level. Some are apprentices for four months, some for a year, and there are four levels beyond that.”

Faster and more flexible
Having a quick and clear path to greater rewards resonates with most Millennials, observes Vicky Oliver, a New York-based career coach and author of five books, including 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions. While older workers may believe younger employees aren’t willing to “pay their dues” in an industry, Oliver says, the truth is that Millennials operate on a different timeline.

“This younger generation grew up with the Internet and is used to getting answers and operating fast. They have speeded-up job expectations as well,” says Oliver. “If they don’t feel like they are moving up quickly, they’ll move out and job hop.

“One way to recruit younger workers is to talk about all the skills they’ll amass and how fast they can move ahead,” she continues. “Make sure your culture uses words that emphasize the speed of promotability and getting rewarded quickly, whether with money or a title or something else.”

Lemley, for instance, revised one company policy in response to comments from a highly motivated younger employee. “We changed the eligibility to participate in our retirement program from three years to one year,” he reports.

Here are additional ideas to implement:
Learn more about them. Paula Ward has noticed overtime rarely interests younger employees, while leaving early does. Rather than jump to conclusions and assume all young workers are lazy, she explains how much the company needs them at work and tries to learn something about their personal lives.

For example, explains Oliver, “They may not want to stay late because they can’t due to family or other commitments. As a group, the younger generation has a lot of interests and, probably because they are used to multi-tasking, are much better about balancing those interests with their work lives.”

Acknowledge Millennials’ preferences. A few years back, Ward noticed younger employees zoning out during her company’s one-hour, weekly training session. She suggested that the trainer talk less and use more PowerPoint presentations, fill-in-the-blank handouts, and webinars—and attentiveness increased markedly. “The younger generation can’t sit and listen for an hour without doing something. They need interaction and visual aids,” Ward notes.

Revisit your management style. “When I was a young technician, you valued your job so much that you listened when the boss yelled and screamed,” remembers Michael DeJoseph. “Today, employees are motivated more by private pep talks and solution-based discussions.”

Provide lots of feedback. “In addition to pats on the back for jobs well done, frequent performance reviews—even if they aren’t attached to money—are good,” says Oliver. Each day, for example, Bloomfield Cooling calls the previous day’s customers to ensure they are satisfied with the service provided. DeJoseph shares the positive feedback with the technicians publicly, in front of their peers, and often hands out gift cards to celebrate stellar reviews.

Favor flexibility. DeJoseph treats Saturdays as normal workdays, rotating employees through the weekend schedule. “That gives workers the opportunity to take off a weekday, without using vacation time, to see a kid’s play, coach a game, or just engage with their families,” he says.

“They like the flexibility of moving around days off,” confirms Bob Lemley, who tries to accommodate all requests for schedule changes. “They don’t want to miss out on too much with their families and friends, so if they’re on call they’re good about switching with one another.”

In fact, flexibility emerged as the top-rated non-cash/benefits workplace perk in a 2013 online survey conducted by Ernst & Young LLP ( Among Generation Y respondents in particular, 33% said they’d be more likely to walk away from their current job if day-to-day flexibility wasn’t offered.

Encourage mentoring. Despite the Millennials’ desire to move quickly, not all knowledge can be mastered at the speed of light. That’s why Vicky Oliver suggests teaming people, even informally, from different generations and different levels of your company. “Older workers can guide younger workers, helping them develop the softer skills, like how to build relationships, that are often lacking,” says Oliver. “In turn, younger workers can help older ones with computer skills and getting more comfortable with technology.”

Sandra Sabo
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Posted In: ACCA Now, Management

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