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Changing attitudes to millennials

Practices must learn to attract and retain millennial employees, delegates of the BVA Congress were told

20 February 2019, at 12:28pm

How can veterinary employers encourage staff to work together when people from different generations don’t understand each other? That question was raised – and answered – in the session on “Debunking the millennials myth” at BVA Congress on 15 November 2018.

Members of the millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1997) are often lampooned as self-absorbed, needy and having a strong sense of entitlement. That caricature is hardly accurate but even if it does hold a grain of truth, then tough. Those mainly responsible for spreading these claims – the baby boomer generation (born circa 1945 to 1963) – will have to get used to having them around, speakers warned.

Tracey Killen, personnel director with the John Lewis Partnership, reminded practice owners and managers that within five years, millennials will make up around 75 percent of the available global workforce. All employers, big or small, must learn how to attract and retain employees from this age group. “Sticking your head in the sand will not work; you will need these people if you want to stay in business.”

As the wife of a West Country practitioner, Tracey understands the pressures on veterinary businesses but points out that large corporations like John Lewis face much the same problems. A historically low unemployment rate and a shortage of key skills means that many companies are finding it hard to fill vacant posts. The labour market is also changing rapidly in response to technological advances that are making many traditional jobs disappear. In the remaining jobs, there will be a need for people with technical skills and with a flexible approach to their work, she said.

Catriona Curtis, veterinary talent manager for the Pets at Home group, noted that millennials belong to the first generation to have grown up as “digital natives”, in fully understanding the role of IT and moving with comfort around the social media world. Their career ambitions are very different from those of earlier generations and they neither expect nor want a job for life.

Tracey agreed that members of the millennial generation are more relaxed than their predecessors about their contractual arrangements. “This is becoming the age of the gig economy. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this means low paid, low skilled casual jobs because it is absolutely not. These will be well paid, highly skilled people who want to work on their own terms.”

Catriona Curtis said that millennial workers are not interested in erecting “hard boundaries” between their working and family/social lives and this is helping to drive the shift towards fewer full-time jobs. Increasing numbers of people are looking for part-time work. Indeed, it has been estima- ted that by 2030 only 1 in 10 members of the workforce will be working in a traditional employee role, she noted.

In other respects, millennials are also different – they will want to feel part of a community at work. Their employers will be expected to show transparency in their corporate governance and to take some responsibility for dealing with important social issues, Catriona suggested. This generation is also much more likely to carry out research on the employer’s ethical record before attending an interview and if they are not happy, they are unlikely to accept the post.

When millennials do agree to take a job, they will expect more feedback from their employer than would have seemed normal for previous generations, she noted. But it would be foolish for their bosses to dismiss this as unnecessary – “Millennials want and expect to receive this support and if they don’t get this, then they will leave,” she warned.

These differences in attitude may be difficult for the baby boomer generation to understand but it is they who will have to adapt, not their younger colleagues, Catriona said. Managers will need to be prepared for further changes when the next social group, the so-called Generation Z (born after 1997), starts to enter the workplace. “The one thing that I would most like the senior members of this profession to do, is to stop saying ‘When I was…’, to start living and breathing today and to start looking towards the future. If we do that, then we can make great strides together.”

Tracey felt that a contented and united workforce is essential for dealing with the challenges that businesses will face in the coming years, notably the uncertainties resulting from Britain leaving the EU, which provides so much of the veterinary workforce. She also warned practice owners that increasingly, they will be held responsible for ensuring the mental well-being of their staff.

Businesses that provide a satisfying work environment would help to maintain the productivity of the company. But Tracey was asked whether there were limits to the employer’s responsibilities when few staff are likely to remain loyal to the business for their entire career. Why should a practice put more money into training their staff, if that means that a valued employee is even more likely to leave?

Tracey insisted that practices should invest heavily into developing their staff as it was the right thing to do and was essential for recruiting new workers. Employers should also recognise that even though staff may want to leave the company to develop their careers, it is more likely that they will want to come back if they are treated well, she said.

Catriona believed that by improving the way practices treat their staff, the profession can lose its reputation for having serious problems with mental well-being. “I am hopeful that in 5 to 10 years’ time we will be an outlier at the opposite end of the scale, looked up to by others as a model for a sector with an exceptionally happy, fulfilled workforce,” she said.