Gen Y at Work +Full coverage

Attracting the twentysomething worker (cont.)

By Nadira A. Hira, Fortune writer-reporter


The creature in the wild: Johnny Cooper, assistant designer, J.C. Penney

Johnny Cooper has always wanted to be a fashion designer. At first that usually means picking out pins by day and waiting tables by night. So when an offer of real work came from J.C. Penney in Plano, Texas, he took it in a heartbeat. "What 23-year-old can say that they affect a quarter-billion-dollar business on a daily basis?" he asks.

Yes, he actually has affected it, helping to revamp the company's line of men's swimwear. Cooper also organized a major fundraiser for the company after proposing it in an e-mail to the president. "He responded," Cooper says, chuckling. "It took him a week, and it was a one-liner. But it was the most exciting thing to me."

Succeeding quickly does have its challenges: "I sometimes feel like if I'm given so much responsibility and excelling, why can't I have more and more? I have to say, 'Slow down, Johnny. Sure, you want to be design director, but you've only been here two years.'"

No one joins a company hoping to do the same job forever. But these days even your neighborhood bartender or barista aspires to own the place someday. What's more, the ties that have bound members of this age group to jobs in the past - spouse, kids, mortgage - are today often little more than glimmers in their parents' eyes. So if getting Gen Yers to join a company is a challenge, getting them to stay is even harder.

The key is the same one their parents have used their whole lives - loving, encouraging and rewarding them. What that amounts to in corporate terms is a support network, work that challenges more than it bores, and feedback. "The loyalty of twentysomethings is really based on the relationships they have with those directly above them," says Dorsey, the "Reality Check" author. "There's a perception among management that those relationships shouldn't be too personal, but that's how we know they care about us."

Dorsey - who in true Gen Y style dropped out of college to write an earlier book, "Graduate to Your Perfect Job," without having either graduated or gotten a job - recommends starting small. Business cards are an easy way to make young employees feel valued. Letting them shadow older employees helps, as does inviting them to a management meeting now and then. And marking milestones is major, says Dorsey. No birthday should go uncelebrated, and the first day on the job should be unforgettable.

Dorsey recalls the time the president of an engineering firm called a new employee's mother and asked her to be there when her daughter started work Monday morning. "When her mom walked through the crowd, she was like, 'Oh, my God,' and her mom says to everyone, 'I took her to kindergarten, and now I'm here for her first day of work,'" Dorsey says. "The president took them on a tour of the company and explained to both of them why what new employees were doing was so important to the company. And the mom turns to her daughter and says, 'You are not allowed to quit this job. Real companies are not like this.'"

Skeptics would say Mom had a point. But the idea is simply to make big companies feel small, and even major corporations can do much of that work through mentoring. This no longer means creating a spreadsheet, matching people by gender, race or a shared love of baseball, and hoping for the best. At KPMG, says Jesal Asher, a director in the advisory practice, every junior staffer is expected to have a mentor, every manager a protégé, and those in the middle often have both. There's a Web site to facilitate the formal process, and social activities - happy hours, softball games, group lunches - are organized to encourage informal networking.

With the resources that companies like KPMG have, though, ice-cream socials are just the beginning. This summer KPMG will send 100 new hires to Madrid to train alongside new hires from other countries. The firm also gives employees time off to do community service. Steps like those have helped bring turnover down from 25 percent in 2002 to 18 percent last year, says KPMG's head of campus recruiting, Manny Fernandez.

"Gen Yers are able to do and learn so much more than I could at that stage," he says, "and they're not looking to have a career like I have, with just one company. So we've got to build tools that are not just about retention but about having people develop skills faster, so that they can take on larger opportunities."

While development is a long-term goal, it begins in the short term with harnessing Gen Yers' energy. "They're so vocal that you can almost take an associate to a meeting with the CEO," says Asher, "because something that comes out of her mouth is going to be actually outside the box, something that none of us have ever thought about."

And twentysomethings can thrive when given real responsibility. Mark Meussner, a former Ford manager, remembers one instance when, faced with a serious manufacturing problem and two young engineers begging for the chance to solve it, he took a chance on them. He gave them one more-experienced person as a counselor, and they made what he estimates was a $25 million impact by solving a problem that had proved intractable for a decade. The success spawned a slate of company-sponsored initiatives led by more-junior staffers. Says Meussner: "We need to use 100 percent of an employee - not just their backs and minds, but their innovation, enthusiasm, energy and fresh perspective."

It's 12:45 A.M., this story is due next week, and I'm hard at work. By that I mean I am sitting at a desk. In my house. Wearing yellow ducky slippers, track pants, and the royal-blue Tommy Hilfiger pullover that has been my thinking cap since I started writing papers in high school. Pondering my bookshelf - some Faulkner, Irving, Naipaul, Kerouac, Franzen and, of course, Dr. Seuss and A.A. Milne - for inspiration.

With "The Cosby Show" playing in the background, Google chats going with two friends, and text messages coming from my boyfriend, who's on assignment in Africa. When things really get going, I'll put on "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," which has kept me company through every major story of my writing career. In short, I'm ridiculous.

I know this will be alarming to read, particularly for my mother, who cares so much about my image that she began blow-drying my hair when I was 4. But it had to be written, because I've come to realize that the most significant characteristic of the Gen Y bird is that we are unapologetic. From how we look, to how spoiled we are, to what we want - even demand - of work, we do think we are special. And what ultimately makes us different is our willingness to talk about it, without much shame and with the expectation that somebody - our parents, our friends, our managers - will help us figure it all out.

That's why, in retrospect, when I started at Fortune in 2004, I asked then-editorial director John Huey what he thought the magazine needed and how I might contribute to that end. "I don't think you need to worry about that," he said, fixing me with an ever-so-slightly amused gaze. It seemed like a perfectly valid question at the time, but with all the hindsight that three years can offer, thinking about it makes me giddy - with embarrassment, but also a fair amount of awe. Who did I think I was? At 23, I had already had three jobs - one at a startup magazine that folded, a contract gig at the prestigious MTV News and a stint recruiting for Time Inc., which is why I was sitting with Huey in the first place. And Huey was just an office away from becoming top editor of the world's largest publishing empire. Unwise of me, to say the least.

But that's the beauty of Gen Y. Despite the initial smirk, Huey did go on to talk to me about the magazine, his own career, and what he expected of and hoped for me. And that 20-minute conversation set a tone of learning, self-evaluation and growth that I'm glad of now, especially as I've struggled to turn years of Gen Y news, research and hearsay - ranging from the worshipful to the condescending - into some sort of cohesive narrative.

It speaks to a confidence that's been building since our parents clapped at our first steps, right through the moment when - as so many new college graduates are doing now - we walked across the stage at universities throughout the country, straight into America's finest corporate foyers. If that makes us a bit cocky at times, it's forgivable, because I'm willing to bet that in coming years, all that questioning will lead us to some important answers. And in the meantime - sorry, Mom - I'll be out getting a tattoo.  Top of page