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Sep 3, 2014

I used to have a certain image of the kind of workplace that attracts Millennials — a picture, I’ll admit, that was heavily influenced by movies like the Facebook saga The Social Network.

Around the office would be plenty of free food, beer on tap and great piles of pre-IPO stock options. Over the front door would hang a name like Google, Twitter or Uber.

I knew that Americans born between 1980 and 1993 were the most diverse generation in U.S. history, and that they were more educated, confident, goal-oriented and technologically savvy than my generation. But I’d also heard they were demanding, entitled and easily distracted — so-called hummingbirds, flitting from one job to the next as the mood struck.

“I was horribly wrong” about Millennials

My colleagues and I were desperate to attract young talent. But, honestly, the idea of hiring the brightest of those young workers was daunting.

I was a 50-something working at a big commercial real estate company. And, our offices seemed achingly unglamorous. No foosball, no keg-erator. Just cubicles and bad coffee.

But as it turns out, I was horribly wrong. That stuff doesn’t matter to twenty-somethings any more than it did to my generation. I know because we’ve been hiring them like crazy for the past two years.

We cracked the Millennial code, not by playing to stereotypes, but by working hard to understand what this generation of young workers really wants. To start, we invested in some serious research.

The good news is that unglamorous industries can still attract the most sought-after Millennials. The important task for managers is setting aside preconceived notions about what young people want and learning how to articulate the values and opportunities we have to offer.

It’s true that the idea of a job in my particular business doesn’t naturally occur to Millennials. I work in facilities management: In plain English, we run buildings, from the lobby to the elevators to the air-conditioner on the roof. It’s valuable work, but it’s not sexy.

A looming demographic challenge

The facilities management business faces a massive demographic challenge. The average age of an employee in our field will be 50 this year, compared to 43 in the overall workforce.

Other American industries are in a similar pinch. In the next decade, 18 percent of skilled trade workers are forecast to retire, and apprenticeship programs to train their replacements have been cut by 45 percent in the last five years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In short, we’re facing a Baby Boomer-driven retirement tsunami that threatens to leave our industry without enough skilled workers to function well. We’ve got to start hiring younger workers, now.

Yet it’s been years since my industry spent time appealing to college grads. A survey by Manpower shows that the category of employees we need in facilities management — HVAC, mechanical and electrical workers, among others — currently has the greatest labor shortage of any occupation. These are the people who keep the power running during storms, ensure reliable access to data, and help thousands of office workers be comfortable and productive.

Knowing we’d need young professionals to fill the gap, we set about figuring out what would draw them to a business they might never have heard of. My employer, JLL, commissioned London-based research firm Kadence International to survey more than 200 Millennials about their career preferences and ambitions. Half of them were students, ages 21 to 24; the rest were young professionals, ages 25 to 34.

Here’s what they told us they want:


If you were to put what Millennials want from a corporate job into one word, it would be “intrapreneurship.” It’s not a pretty word, I admit, but behind it lies a powerful concept: Provide avenues for entrepreneurship within a large company by giving people the freedom to look at challenges in different ways.

Some Millennials are drawn to being entrepreneurs, but many more want steady jobs with clear paths for advancement.


Hummingbirds? No. We learned that Millennials are surprisingly focused, and will be loyal to an employer who creates the right kind of workplace.

Given the right conditions, they will stay put: Nine of 10 Millennials we surveyed have worked for only one company.

Autonomy and Opportunity

More than half of the kids we surveyed said one of their strengths is the ability to work independently. And, like all of us, Millennials want their ideas to be recognized and rewarded.

“Millennials stay when they feel like they have the opportunity to be innovative,” says Amy Lynch, president of Generational Edge, a Nashville-based consulting firm. How do you build that into the culture?

Here’s one way: A company Lynch worked with in the printing business (another gritty but important industry) required employees to submit an idea every six weeks for improving the business. The person whose suggestion received the most votes won an immediate $100 bonus, along with time and resources to pursue the idea.

Training and Development

Even as Millennials want to be allowed to work alone, they recognize that they have a lot to learn. Our survey showed they clearly want access to mentoring, formal training (even if it’s online) and on-the-job learning.

Most of the training we used to do here focused on the most critical compliance and safety procedures. Now that stuff is only 10 percent of what we teach. The rest is workplace learning experiences, coaching and assessments.


While, as noted earlier, younger workers will stay with the same employer for extended periods, that doesn’t mean they want to stay in the same jobs. We learned they want defined career paths, and to know that the roles they’re in can lead them to a variety of other roles within a company.

Tim Elmore, the founder and president of Growing Leaders, a Georgia-based nonprofit focused on youth leadership development, encourages employers to think less about an old-fashioned career ladder and more about providing “lily pads” — a series of new experiences that respond to Millennials’ quest for variety.

“They want to do something different after a year and a half,” Elmore says. “If companies can offer a variety of lily pads, there may be a great commitment to staying at that company.”

Technology matters

If technology is involved in what your company does (and I’d be shocked if it’s not), it’s imperative that you communicate that to young employees and prospects. In our survey, 70 percent of Millennials said they wanted to work with cutting-edge technology.

For example, I’ve been talking a lot lately about how our we used technology to dramatically improve the efficiency of the venerable 83-year-old Empire State Building by, among other things, rebuilding all of the windows with heat mirrors and installing software that monitors and controls all of the entire building’s energy usage. We reduced the energy the building uses by 38 percent—it’s now ranked in the top 9 percent of buildings for efficiency.

In the old days, the only people who would have heard about that were the engineers directly involved and the building’s owner. But that’s the kind of project that the kids want to hear about — and that will motivate just about all of your employees.

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