Millennials and the Workplace- Embracing the Inevitable

Chances are that over the past few years you have had the pleasure of reading one article or had one conversation about ‘millennials.’ Millennials, or people born between 1980-2000, are the topic of the decade, one that no opinion writer, blogger or think-tank wants to remain silent on. Sometimes millennials are good, sometimes they are bad, sometimes they are smashed-avo munching renters, and sometimes they are not that different after all.

To fulfill the potential of the NDIS, the sector's workforce needs to double by 2019. As Brent wrote in his article, we are currently falling seriously short of meeting this target. In the disability world, millennials are not the workforce of tomorrow; they are the workforce that we needed yesterday.

Yet when I look up from my iPhone and see my fellow millennials, I am baffled by how few are even aware of the disability sector, let alone considering employment within it. Why is this?

A recent Deloitte survey confirmed what many of us have long suspected- millennials are looking for more than just money in a job. 86% of millennials believe that the success of a business should be measured on more than just financial performance. Further, 53% felt they were personally responsible for contributing to social equality. The survey also showed that millennials are looking for flexibility in their workplace. As a purpose-driven, diverse and often flexible industry, the disability sector has the potential to tick all these boxes for young students and job seekers.

In my pre-NDIS life, I worked in international development, where scores of millennials work for years in unpaid positions just to get a chance at a “purpose-driven” employment opportunity. Like many, I thought I would need to risk bankruptcy and dengue fever to make a real difference. Now I find myself smack bang in one of the best opportunities to influence and implement a seismic change to social services. But when I look around, everyone is, well, let us just say not a millennial. To add to this, youth unemployment is currently roughly double that of the broader population. The disability sector offers not just paid employment, but a range of different employment options depending on your interests.  So why are young people not running to the disability sector with the same passion that they race to their brunch foods?

The average age of a disability sector employee is 47, seven years older than the general working population. This is older than more than 77% of participants. An influx of millennial workers can help providers better serve their younger customers.

This has certainly been my experience. I employ a support worker for a couple of hours each week. When I was selecting somebody, my main criterion was that I wanted someone close to my age. I felt this was the most natural fit for my household (by which I mean myself, a friend and what feels like a trillion cats). Truth be told, I was quite nervous about hiring a support worker. It was not something I had done before and I was plagued with doubts and social anxiety. Hiring somebody my own age felt more like bringing a friend into my house. Conversation came more naturally as we discussed our favourite books, TVs shows, and soon realised we had friends in common.    

So by now I hope I have convinced you of the importance of attracting these avocado loving youngsters. But how?

The first challenge is to increase the visibility of disability and the sector. When I mention working in disability to a millennial (or often a non-millennial for that matter), they often look at me like I am expecting them to become a wheelchair salesperson. In reality, the jobs in the disability sector are as varied as disability itself.

No one organisation can singlehandedly shine a light on the sector. There needs to be a coordinated effort involving government, service providers and advocacy groups. However, every organisation can play their part. This might mean attending Career Expos, talking at schools and universities, and increasing your social media presence. It is essential to go to young people where they already are, rather than waiting for them to come to you.

Once you have piqued their interest, the challenge will be to aluminate clear pathways into the sector. Students will need to know from the beginning what jobs are available and what qualifications they will need. Organisations should consider graduate programs that allow them to select the best and brightest to transition into and up through the organisation. Graduate programs, internships and work experience opportunities can give young people with passion but very little practical experience a foot in the door. Many of today’s youth do want to join the sector (even if they don’t know it yet), but it is our responsibility to show them how.

From there, it should not be too hard. Millennials to jobs are like dogs to a ball. If they see the path to paid employment, heaven help anything that gets in their way.

When I went to HireUp to find my millennial support worker, I was actually quite spoilt for choice. I see this as the consequence of how they have consciously marketed themselves to potential staff and customers.  Their front page is full of pictures of young people supporting other young people. Of the three sample workers, two are young people and one describes himself as a ‘quidditch player and gamer.’ That could well be the bio of my whole generation. Moreover, HireUp does not require any formal disability qualifications. This makes it the ideal fit for university students looking for meaningful and flexible employment while they finish their studies. Being a user-friendly, tech start-up probably does not hurt either. I use this example to encourage you and your organisation to engage in some reflective thinking and ask:

  • Is your organisation present where young people are (universities, career expos, etc)?

  • What does your website communicate about the type of workplace potential staff might experience or the work they will do?

  • What pathways are there for people to enter and travel through your organisation?

Every generation will fear the one that comes after it. It will not be long before millennials start writing feature articles on the horrors of Generation Z (or iGen) in the workplace. But every generation also has something unique to offer. With the right strategy, it is possible for any organisation to become an appealing workplace for young people. And when millennials finally start crowding your break room and showing up in meetings, hopefully, you too will find that we really are not that bad after all.