Understanding Generation Y Employees

They’re often called Generation Y or, less favourably, the Peter Pan generation. They’re the 18 to 20 somethings who have turned their back on their parents’ punishing pursuit of pay and prestige in favour of more holistic priorities – seeing the world, a greater work-life balance, and more emotionally-rewarding forms of work.

The three-way collision between these apparent idealists, the economic crisis and an ever-growing number of graduates has created what the CIPD calls a “disillusioned generation,” stuck in non-graduate jobs.

But research we recently commissioned at The Student Room offers a different perspective and a revealing insight into the shifting attitudes of graduates and undergraduates. Within this are some invaluable lessons for employers of all sizes who are looking to recruit graduate talent.

In spite of the current jobs market, we’ve found graduates are determined, ambitious, and focused on long-term career goals. They know what they want, they know how to get there – and they’ll do what it takes. As a result, employers will need to change their graduate recruitment strategies if they are to hire, and hold on to, the very best candidates.

A degree of determination

We have some 2.8m unique users a month aged 16-24 on The Student Room, posting 26,000 times a day. They talk about everything from what mobile phone to buy to where to study. The career forums are one of the biggest site areas, with a constant ‘hot topic’ of concern ‘How to find the job of your dreams’. This is why we polled 1,000 of our users about their attitudes towards finding work.

The findings were striking. We found that 65 per cent of working graduates are not in their chosen career – something corroborated by the recent figures from the CPID. Yet whereas that report spoke of a “disillusioned generation,” our research painted a more nuanced picture.

Yes, many graduates are working outside “graduate” roles – but they are making the absolute most of these opportunities. More than half see their current position as a stepping stone into the career of their dreams, using it to hone their skills (40 per cent), build their experience (32 per cent), or get that all-important foot in the door (21 per cent). They also recognise that it may take several such steps to get where they want to be: half of today’s university leavers expect to have three or more careers during their working lives, and one in 20 more than five.

And yet far from being “disillusioned”, eight out of 10 graduates are confident that they will eventually work in their preferred career.

Knowing they face a competitive jobs market when they graduate, this generation is beginning to plan their careers early. It is giving serious, adult consideration to job choices before they even start university, with half of current undergraduates having settled on their career choice before applying to university.

Particularly noteworthy is the maturity displayed. By and large, they are making these important decisions themselves after careful consideration. The biggest single factor influencing career decisions is young people’s own research, followed by work experience – far outstripping the influence of their parents or school careers services, which just four per cent said had governed their decision.

In making their own minds up, they are looking beyond their monthly pay packet, in keeping with the Generation Y ethos. Fifty-eight per cent of respondents gave a career’s potential to be interesting as a motivating factor, with 42 per cent looking for a career that is rewarding – both far outstripping salary (27 per cent). Consequently, university leavers are turning their backs on ‘traditional’ graduate roles, such as banking and finance or the media, in favour of careers in healthcare (16 per cent), the creative and cultural industries (11 per cent) and teaching and education (eight per cent).

Recruitment ramifications

There are several key learnings here for firms of any size looking to take on talented, committed graduates.

Most importantly, recruiters need to start targeting the brightest students early – even before they begin university. Leave it until their final year and you may have left it too late. Establishing a formal or informal programme of internships with local sixth firm colleges or universities could offer both employers and candidates a way to ‘try before they buy’. And do not under-estimate the appeal of such internships – these are consistently among the most talked about forums on The Student Room.

Career decisions are based on young people’s own research, and the most common way this will be done is via the internet. Give some thought to your online presence and how it can be connected to your recruitment activities, both in terms of active outreach and how things like staff blogs or Twitter feeds will be perceived by potential recruits. Think also about not only your own website but also your presence in candidates’ community sites – Facebook, the Student Room, etc. This is doubly important given the apparent decline in influence of more traditional recruitment comms channels and the splintering of the Generation Y candidate pool. Be they long-sighted A-level students or degree holders who have spent a few years purposefully building up experience in the world of work, they are unlikely to be reached by campus careers fairs or milk round presentations.

There will come a greater need to look beyond 21-year-olds fresh from university. Even more weight should be put on reaching second jobbers, broadening the media use and targeting areas online where you know your audience gathers.

You should also not under-estimate your appeal. Pay is not the be-all and end-all. Careers with large, blue-chip behemoths appear to be palling. If you offer interesting, rewarding opportunities, shout about it. If you’re a small firm and any new recruit will have to roll their sleeves up and try their hand at everything, let them know. In the current jobs market, experience is a precious currency and the employers who can offer it are in an advantageous position.

Once you have taken on graduate talent, knowing that they are likely to be taking a long-term view of their career is a valuable insight, reshaping how to approach retention.

If you want to hang on to recruits in the medium- to long-term, our research suggests that offering training and development opportunities is now the way to go about it, ahead of high pay – which may be good news for employers in these tough times.

Of course, you may work for a company whose size means that you are unable to offer graduates long-term progression. This, too, can be an opportunity. A third of working graduates will only commit to their existing role for six months to a year: candidates are looking for tactical work placements to gain experience and hone their skills before moving on. If both parties are honest about this, it can be a mutually beneficial relationship, even if not a long-term one.

Generation Y has been called the Peter Pan generation – well, Peter Pan has grown up. The graduate jobs market is more competitive than any point in history but today’s students are more ambitious than ever. Generation Y is now Generation How – they know what they want and how to get there. If recruiters can help them achieve that, the results will be beneficial to all.

The full article by Jamie O’Connell, Marketing Director of The Student Room also appeared on ‘Fresh Business thinking.com’