The “Firster” Challenge: Just Think of Them as a Younger Version of You

Second of two parts

By Mark Sanborn and Eric Chester

In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Dennis Nally, the chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), summed up the challenge of today’s first time, entry level employees, or “firsters”: “How they want to work … is very different than the prior generation. If your human policies aren’t responsive to what they’re looking for, they are going to go to a company that is.”

And what do they want? Among the “wants” he enumerates: less-hierarchical structures, more flexibility, more skill development, more mobility, the ability to define how they do their work, and “to move quickly from one part of an organization to another.”

Benefits for the entire company

At first glance, that looks like an awful lot of “wants” coming from employees who only just set foot in the workplace. One might be tempted, again, to ask, “Who do they think they are?” But let’s look at what “firsters” want in another light.

“Less hierarchical structures” means more free-flowing communication and cooperation among all levels of a company. “Flexibility” and “defining how they do their work” means the ability to balance life and work and to work in ways that optimize performance. They want skill development – the means to get better at what they do. Mobility within an organization offers them a chance to understand every aspect of their new company.

In that light, many accommodations for firsters might well be considered reforms or improvements that any leader or business would want to consider. And indeed, many companies that are accommodating their first-time employees in these ways are finding benefits for the company as a whole, including the bottom line.

Perhaps the most striking example of a change in the approach to firsters is United Parcel Service (UPS). Entry level employees in their 20s make up about 60 percent of its workforce. About a decade ago, UPS noticed a spike in the number of firsters leaving within a year of hiring. They focused on the training of firsters – skill development – and, after a joint study with the Department of Labor, UPS launched a new, multimillion-dollar training center in Maryland. The center incorporates hands-on learning, technology, mentoring from senior employees, and even video game simulations. The result? Not only has the retention of firsters improved but the company’s retention, productivity, and safety numbers have risen across the board.

Using mentorships to help keep “firsters”

In fields like finance, law, and accounting, firms have always counted on their junior associates to patiently work their way toward senior partnerships. Now, they’re just trying to keep them in the pipeline long enough to contribute to the team. Their solution? Mentorships.

By pairing junior hires with senior partners, firms in these industries have helped break down hierarchy and provide skill development to firsters at little or no cost. The firsters get the access, guidance, and feedback they want and the firms get employees who are more likely to stick around for the long haul.

Nally’s own PwC has a “Partner Connectivity” program that gives new hires unprecedented access to senior partners. AT&T uses a group mentoring program called “Leadership Circles.” British Telecom uses a technology-based mentoring program, “Dare2Share,” built on a social media platform of podcasts and discussion threads.

In a kind of “reverse mentoring” program, CEO Richard Davis of US Bank Corp recently created an advisory board of young employees called the “Dynamic Dozen” that provides input to senior leadership. Across a variety of industries and methods, all of these programs accomplish the same things for firsters: they enhance communication and access, break down hierarchy, and help develop skills.

Many employers are put off when firsters want flexibility and some control over when, where, and how they do their work. For a long time, many of us have measured productivity in terms of number of hours spent at a workplace or in “face time” with colleagues. However, today’s firsters, through their ease with technology, have learned that they can work anytime and anywhere they can get connected.

Reaching out on their own terms and turf

Companies that focus on the work performed rather than the number of hours spent in the office are likely to come out ahead on balance. And in more than a few cases, firsters may figure out more efficient and smarter ways to get work done. Employers that are open to the innovations of the “digital” generation will likely benefit from efficiencies introduced by their “connected” firsters.

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Ernst & Young (E&Y) is a great example of a company reaching out to “twenty-somethings” on their own terms and turf. E&Y has a presence across social media – they’re on Facebook, Twitter, even Pandora. Their Facebook page “Ernst & Young Careers” is nearing 100,000 “likes” and their Twitter feed has tens of thousands of followers. The result? For several years running in an annual survey, E&Y has been ranked among the top 5 places for a new college graduate to work. The other companies on the list include Apple, Google, and Disney!

E&Y vaulted its way into such esteemed company by convincing firsters that it shares their tastes and values. Other companies do that, too, by inviting firsters to be a part of company-based community service, volunteer opportunities, personal development, and sustainability practices. Target’s “Here for Good” initiative involves employees in service to local schools as well as environmental, health, and safety programs.

Walgreens appoints a “Community Leader” in each store to lead fellow employees in efforts like winter coat drives and fundraisers. IKEA touts its participation in Earth Hour and its collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund. Not only do these programs improve employee satisfaction and retention, but they also put a very appealing public face on these companies.

If all of this seems like a lot to ask, let’s remember what firsters are not demanding: more salary and benefits. Oh sure, everyone loves a raise and more fringe benefits, but this generation of firsters ranks training, flexibility, and other low-cost benefits just as highly. They aren’t asking us to bust our salary and benefit structures or to shower them with more money. And leaders and businesses may just find that offering firsters things like mentoring, skill development, mobility, and open-door access to the boss keeps their new employees on board and helps usher their companies into the twenty-first century.

Perhaps the best advice for you as an employer of young talent is to avoid thinking of them simply as a younger version of you back when you were a firster. Then take a bold step to try to see the world — and the workplace — from their point of view. Gaining that perspective will be instrumental in helping you, and your organization, attract firsters that last.

In case you missed it, Part 1 was about The “Firster” Challenge: Managing First-Time Employees So They Last.

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.

Eric Chester is a leading voice in the global dialogue on employee engagement, and building a world-class workplace culture. He's an in-the-trenches researcher on the topic of the millennial mindset, and the dynamics of attracting, managing, motivating and retaining top talent. Chester is a Hall-of-Fame keynote speaker and the author of 4 leadership books including his newly released Amazon #1 Bestseller On Fire at Work: How Great Companies Ignite Passion in their People without Burning Them Out.  Learn more at and follow him at @eric_chester