The Millennial Question Has a Surprisingly Simple Answer

February 01, 2017
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

An interview featuring my good friend Simon Sinek recently “went viral.” By viral, I mean more than 4 million views.

He was, once again, answering the “Millennial Question.” There was so much discussion around what he said that he addressed the topic again in a Facebook Live session last week.

What is the “Millennial Question,” you might ask? Simon explains:

“Apparently millennials… are tough to manage. And they’re accused of being entitled, narcissistic, self-interested, unfocused, lazy – but entitled is the big one. And because they confound leadership so much, what’s happening is leadership is asking the millennials, ‘What do you want?’”

What do they think they want? According to what Simon can surmise, they want “to work in a place with purpose, they want to have an impact…and they want free food and bean bags.”

Simon does a great job breaking down the issues surrounding millennials and the challenges they face, but the damning thing is how leaders are responding—or not responding– to these challenges.

I’m often asked about this new generation in interviews, but it’s mostly focused on what advice I would give them as they’re beginning their careers. Oddly enough, I’m never asked what advice I would give to their leaders.

As Simon pointed out in his Facebook Live chat, the “Millennial Question” really isn’t about millennials at all; it has to do with good leadership.

It has to do with getting leaders to understand what really drives this largely misunderstood but educated, creative and technology-savvy generation that will make up 75% of our workforce by 2025.

For companies like Barry-Wehmiller that operate primarily in the industrial manufacturing space, there’s no time to waste. For many decades – as technology advanced and companies shifted production overseas – the number of jobs in this country continued to decrease. But statistics like these show things are changing:

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in December 2016, the manufacturing industry added 17,000 workers. We’ve recently seen companies like Ford cancel plans to export jobs to other countries in the face of the incoming administration, and companies such as GM, Apple and Fiat Chrysler talk of adding more production to U.S. plants. Will that continue to be a trend? Maybe.
  • An Industry Market Barometer report about the future of manufacturing showed that nearly half of the manufacturing workforce is aged 55 or older. Many of those plan to retire soon.
  • A recent Forbes article pointed out that “by the end of 2017, as many as 600 major semiskilled professions could realize a growth rate of 5% or more.”

Trades and industrial jobs are becoming more appealing for those entering the workforce because of the increasingly high cost of secondary education and the almost life-long debt that follows with little hope or guarantee of a job. At least one that provides a living wage.

Clearly, within the manufacturing sector, there is both a need and an opportunity to draw the millennial generation into our workforce. Yet how are companies going to attract and retain them when many leaders are still befuddled by the Millennial Question: What do they want?

Clearly, they’re looking for more than free food and bean bags.

Gallup has called millennials the “Job-Hopping Generation” because 21% have changed jobs in the past year and 60% are open to new opportunities.  Why? They want jobs that feel worthwhile ― and they’ll leave your company if they don’t find them there.

So, what makes a job worthwhile?

The Levo Institute, a career networking resource for millennials, says that of the 15% of the millennial workforce in “blue-collar” jobs, two thirds of those workers “see the impact of their work daily, feel valued by their immediate team and feel that their work has purpose. All of this, despite how they feel about current leadership and culture which rank amongst the lowest in favorite aspects of their jobs.”

“ But sadly, just over 74% feel they have neither a person they see as a mentor (someone who gives help and advice to a less experienced person) nor a sponsor (a person who advocates for a less experienced person’s promotion). They don’t see companies taking a vested interest in their development.”

The millennials surveyed by Gallup expressed similar feelings. They said they want their manager to care about them as an employee and a person. In fact, Gallup discovered that 62% of millennials who feel they can talk with their manager about non-work-related issues plan to be with their current organization one year from now.

Our observations tell us that millennials, whether they can articulate it or not, are looking for companies that have a clearly defined purpose and they desire the opportunity to contribute to a shared purpose. They want to work for companies that truly care about them and are intentional about helping them grow and develop into all they were meant to be. They want to work for leaders—not managers or bosses, but true leaders—who let them know that who they are and what they do matter.

Since the early 2000s, throughout Barry-Wehmiller, we have been very intentional in our efforts to create a culture like the millennials envision. Throughout our growing global organization, we are united by our shared vision of measuring our success by the way we touch the lives of others. That means providing our team members with meaningful work within an environment of care, compassion and human connection.

We teach our team members and leaders the invaluable skill of listening to enhance communication and collaboration. We work hard to build trust and respect. We foster open dialogue among our people, no matter their role or title, to continuously improve our business practices. We offer them the freedom to use their gifts and talents in creating a better business. And we recognize and celebrate our team members for their remarkable contributions along the way.

In essence, we help them discover, grow and develop into all they were meant to be. And there’s not a single bean bag chair in any one of our more than 100 locations around the world.

With all the rhetoric about millennials and their so-called shortcomings, it’s hard to wonder if we’re not giving them a fair shake. Perhaps it’s time we ask ourselves this question: are the millennials the problem or is it our leadership of them that’s lacking?

As our friend Simon Sinek said, “We’re taking this amazing group of young, fantastic kids… and we put them in corporate environments that care more about the numbers than they do about the kids. They care more about the short-term gains than the long-term life of this young human being.”

Companies that don’t foster cultures in which their team members can thrive will themselves struggle to thrive. The baby boomers tolerated traditional corporate environments. Generation Xers have grown increasingly frustrated by them. Finally, millennials are pushing the conversation about workplace culture change forward. And that’s a good thing. Because, as Simon once said to me, “Everyone deserves a job where they go home at the end of their day feeling fulfilled by the work that they do.”

The “Millennial Question” is only difficult to answer when you overlook the very heart of the problem.


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