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Apr 5, 2012

First of two parts

By Mark Sanborn and Eric Chester

After graduating from college, Eric started his career as a high school business teacher and coach. Mark launched his career selling in the magazine business.

Do you remember your first job? I mean your first time in a “real” job, an honest-to-goodness, full-time job after you completed your formal education? Odds are, you reflect on it as both a challenge and a rite of passage.

The challenge came from acclimating to something new and learning the ropes after a few mistakes and failures. The rite of passage came from sticking it out through the awkward phase and finally becoming part of a team. This is likely the time when you first felt fully adult, able to support yourself, make important decisions, assume responsibility for your life and make it on your own.

Starting a career is always exciting, but never easy. But increasingly, first-time employees – let’s call them “firsters” for short – are not sticking it out. Pushing the ‘instant gratification’ label to the “nth” degree, the emerging workforce is libel to jump ship before they learn the ropes. And with the soaring coast of attracting and recruiting young talent, employers and business leaders are challenged like never before.

“Firsters” don’t stay in their first job

In their “Life After College Survey,” Experience, Inc has found that, during the last decade, over half of college graduates leave their first job within the first two years. In 2008, that figure reached 70 percent. Further, almost 80 percent of all “firsters” move on within three to five years. When asked ‘why’, the most frequent responses were the desire for a promotion and/or a raise, and boredom resulting in wanting to try something new and different. Other “firsters” replied that they were unhappy or unfulfilled and felt they needed a change.

Another survey by HR and talent management consultants Mercer confirms this trend. They found that almost half of employees in their first year or two of employment are considering leaving their jobs. The also found that over 40 percent of “twenty-somethings” – typically “firsters” – are considering leaving their current jobs. The survey pointed out that while many are dissatisfied with pay and benefits, just as many are dissatisfied with their opportunities for training and advancement.

The temptation might be to throw up your hands and say, “What’s the matter with these young people? Won’t any of them keep their nose to the grindstone long enough to reap the rewards that await? Whatever happened to loyalty?”

Face it leaders: your business needs fresh young ideas and energy, especially if you want to appeal to customers and prospects who are young and hip. That means you can’t hire around them. No organization can afford to write off this whole generation of talent. The problem of figuring out ways to retain “firsters” long enough for them to become valued team members is worth solving.

Discouraged by entry-level work

Need data? The Society for Human Resource Management estimates that it costs $3,500 to replace one $8 per hour unskilled part time employee when all costs —recruiting, interviewing, hiring, training, and reduced productivity – are considered. Imagine what the cost is for a college-educated “firster” in your business. It’s estimated that turnover costs you 30-50 percent of the annual salary of entry-level employees, 150 percent of middle level employees, and up to 400 percent for specialized, high level employees.

So let’s get inside the heads of those that are keeping us up at night to determine some solutions to this dilemma.

A recent PwC study of young employees help expose their thought process when it comes to careers. The recession has forced many young employees to compromise their expectations to obtain their first jobs. They went in to college expecting that they’d their pick of jobs when they came out, and the reality has been a rude awakening.

For a generation that has been raised on self-esteem and the expectation that they could be anything they wanted, the slog of entry level work in jobs they never imagined they’d apply for has been discouraging, to say the least. Further, the current generation of “firsters” has no concept of company loyalty, having seen the careers of their parents derailed by outsourcing, downsizing, and rightsizing. This has given them a free agent mindset when it comes to their career; they refuse to entrust it to a company.

What they might be looking for

But the PwC study also offers some clues as to what “firsters” might be looking for.

For example, in response to a couple of questions, they rank training and education, work-life flexibility, and the opportunity for advancement ahead of or equal to salary and benefits in terms of what they’re looking for in a job. PwC’s global survey shows some slight variations between different countries, but overall “firsters’” attitudes are remarkably consistent across the globe.

By looking closely at “firsters” needs, it’s possible for businesses and leaders to accommodate and retain them without distorting salary structures and other basic business policies. We’ve spent a combined 45 years studying and teaching leadership and generational differences and we’ve learned much from those in the trenches who deal with these kinds of challenges.

In part two, we’ll take a look at some ways you can reach out to “firsters,” including some best practices of businesses that are getting it right.

This was originally published on Eric Chester’s Reviving Work Ethic blog. His new book is Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce. For copies, visit

Mark Sanborn is the President of Sanborn And Associates Inc, an idea studio for leadership development. He is a bestselling author and speaks frequently to top global companies.