A View From The Trenches

By Silvana Clark

Some authors research their books by interviewing Sherpas while climbing Mt. Everest. Me? I spent six weeks living at a residential camp, hoping to gain insight into the minds of 19- to 32-year-olds—Millennials. Yes, I ate three meals a day with them, listening to their complaints about college-graduation requirements and learning about entry-level office politics. I was even recruited by a female counselor to see if a certain male counselor had a girlfriend. I joined in their team-building activities, shared the laundry room, and met their parents on visiting day. Here’s what I discovered:

1.       Millennials like being mentored, but don’t like being told that their work habits can be improved.

Millennials grew up nurtured and guided by adults. Now, in almost any coming-of-age advice, young people are told to find a mentor.

While working at camp, I was in constant contact with 120 young adults from around the country. This diverse group ranged from freshmen entering an Ivy League college to 27-year-old married couples wanting to “give back” to a camp that had influenced their lives. During staff training, several Millennials commented on the personal and valuable experiences they had while being mentored by an older, experienced person. Seeing that I was in a leadership position, several of them stopped by my office on a regular basis, looking for advice on becoming a professional speaker or author. We easily developed a positive mentor-mentee relationship. However, things changed when I pointed out how their job performances needed to improve. They conveyed a feeling of indignation that I would “dare” tell them they needed to show up better prepared for their activity programs. “I’ve been doing this for three summers,” one counselor told me. “I really don’t need anyone telling me how to do my job.” (I didn’t mention that I had been doing the same thing for 25 years.)

At one training session, I handed out a variety of books on biking, hiking, waterskiing, tennis, crafts, and rock climbing, suggesting the counselors look the books over for new insights to improve their activity classes. Most gave a cursory glance at the books and let me know they didn’t need any new ideas. Supervisors in other industries share the same experience. “I had a recent college graduate tell me he knew more about computer programming than I did,” one manager at an insurance company told me after a speaking engagement. “He said there was no reason for me to suggest he needs to turn in his weekly reports on time.”

Solution: Stand your ground. Yes, Millennials are tech-savvy, but no matter how skilled they are at computer programming, they lack the years of experience that come from … shall we say, years of experience? “I’ve talked to managers that are scared to offend Millennials,” another small-business owner commented after hearing me speak. “Sure, these young employees offer valuable skills, but as managers we can certainly expect them to follow the guidelines our company has.” During the hiring process, clearly explain your camp’s culture. LetMillennials know that you recognize their unique skills, but that they also need to be part of the camp culture. Define what “success” means at camp, and let them know how their progress is assessed. Try to give frequent feedback on their performance rather than wait for an end-of-summer review.

2.        Millennials want to be together—at work and in their personal lives.

More than any generation, Millennials enjoy sharing their interests in work, food, hobbies, and entertainment with others. Many of their school assignments involve working on group projects. Everything is better when shared with others! At camp, that group mentality evidenced itself on a regular basis. On a “free afternoon,” groups quickly formed to go out to lunch or grab kayaks for a paddle. When it came to work, counselors definitely wanted to work directly with their friends. I even observed counselors spending their time off assisting a friend who was working. While teamwork is great, some jobs require one person and one person only.

Solution: Acknowledge the importance of teamwork, while pointing out that individual efforts also have value. At weekly staff meetings, ask one or two Millennials to share a personal benefit gained from the camp program. This gives recognition for their efforts. Clearly spell out job duties, stating whether they are individual or group projects. If some individuals have solitary jobs, provide opportunities for them to work together on the end-of-the-year banquet, or design a new ropes course with other camp staff.

3.        Millennials are in no hurry to reach adulthood.

Most Baby Boomers graduated from high school or college, got a job, found a spouse, bought their first house, and were on their way to adulthood by age 24. Millennials are taking longer “finding themselves” than previous generations. Instead of gaining basic work experience flipping burgers or mowing lawns during high school, young people pursue specialty internships to enhance their resumes. Once that first “real” job is achieved, 30.3 percent of Millennials end up living with their parents. This delays getting married, (would you want to bring your date home with Mom and Dad dozing off while watching TV?), let alone buying a home.

At camp, many of the young adults gave glowing reports of attending camp since the age of eight, becoming a counselor at 18, and returning every summer during ( and after) college. “My dad said he wants me to enjoy my summers here at camp rather than working in a stuffy office,” a 25-year-old told me. “This is my 12th year at this camp,” he added proudly. Surprisingly, his story was not unusual. The majority of Millennials I worked with still were supported primarily by their parents. Several shared how they were earning a Master’s degree…again financed by Mom and Dad. There was little or no urgency to take on adult responsibilities. One camp director told me, “I don’t think camp staff [[members] understand that I am running a business. I need documentation about first-aid certification or just a Social Security number. I have to send constant reminders to get basic information from them because they are used to their parents handling things like that.”

Solution: Start weaning Millennials into the real world. Yes, camp is fun and you get to wear shorts and T-shirts every day. But even camp requires some grown-up responsibilities. Just as campers need to follow rules, be firm in what you expect from camp staff. It’s easy to have a relaxed attitude when it comes to some aspects of camp. (Not safety!) I would sometimes find counselors arriving to their assigned location 10 minutes late and telling me, “It’s no big deal.” They didn’t like my reminding them that it was a big deal since classes were to start on time.

At staff meetings, ask an “older” Millennial to share what he or she wishes they had done differently at their first job. Explain the reason why employees need to make sure that supplies are in place when the afternoon Snack Shack opens. It may take extra effort to follow up and make sure counselors are where they are supposed to be, and doing what they are supposed to be doing.

According to an interview with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., Millennials will make up as much as 75 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2025, and their impact is being felt even today. Understanding the mindset of this highly educated workforce helps create a more cohesive workplace. Spending six weeks with a group of young adults showed me that, with some structure and guidance, camp programs will thrive with these enthusiastic and slightly wacky Millennials.

Silvana Clark’s presentation, “Managing Millennials When They Don’t Want to be Managed” helps employers utilize the valuable skills Millennials bring to work. Her latest book, Millennials Versus Boomers is a “flip-book” that presents 10 aspects of being productive at work. Reach her at SilvanaC@msn.com.

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