Want to Recruit and Retain Young Workers? Adapt Your Management Style

Aug 15, 2019

My first job was hard. Really hard. The store manager loved to yell, and he seemed to especially love to yell at me. As a teenager, sweeping floors and cleaning up spilled milk was anything but glamorous, yet I persevered, survived, and eventually earned cooler jobs, more responsibility, and made a career of retail.

Which means that now, when I talk to young people about taking on a career in retail, I often respond with a warning about how hard retail can be. I think about those long hours, hard tasks, unglamorous workdays, and use it as a badge of honor. I tell them, “If you are strong enough, you too can have a career in retail.”

The problem with this thinking is that it is exactly the opposite of how young people think. Consider the following comment, seen through the lens of Baby Boomers like me, and Millennials like my kids:

Baby Boomer: Start off working harder than everyone else and you will get ahead.

Millennial: With technology and information, we can work smarter. Working hard for hard’s sake isn’t for me.

The former store manager in me bristles at the Millennial answer. After all, hard work and rough discipline was how I was trained and the way that hard jobs like retail and food service must work.

But the reality of our world is that we have a hard time recruiting labor for our stores. While it isn’t news that retail is rarely young people’s career aspiration of choice, it feels today that younger workers just don’t want to work very hard.

But the reality is far more complex, and other industries and other brands are finding that throwing away our old model of what it should be like to start off in the workplace is the key first step in repackaging a recruiting process for success.

For the record, I am not talking about some Silicon Valley startup with bean bag chairs, nap rooms, and free energy drinks. Instead I am talking about ideas that are working in high volume service businesses like retail. Consider if any of these tactics would work in your business:

Help employees feel valued
A recent study of younger workers found that many leave their jobs after a few years because they feel overlooked and that their opinions don’t matter. Brands like Disney, Chipotle, Starbucks, and even the U.S. Army have found that inviting employees into conversations on how to improve the business, reduce costs, or serve customers better not only brings new ideas to the business, but also dramatically improves retention.

Elevate the job
There is a joke about the trash collector who wants to be called a sanitation engineer, but the reality is that every worker, and especially younger ones, want to feel like what they do matters. Disney calls their hourly associates “cast members.” Close to home, many of our IGA retailers call their deli managers “chefs” rather than “managers."

But this is more than just playing games with names. Smart brands are loading younger workers with bigger responsibilities to go with the names. Home Depot expects its department heads to own their aisle—literally. They encourage them to put their name on the end and take responsibility for making it the best aisle in the store, even if that means customization beyond the company’s standards.

Today’s younger workers have grown up in a world where digital technology and social media allow almost anyone to become an entrepreneur. Now with Kickstarter and other crowd funding options, the path to making your idea into a business seems more achievable than ever before.

Thinking of associates as “entrepreneurs in residence” is an amazingly smart approach, one followed by brands like Dominos and CVS. Young people come into the workforce more connected and often savvy with social media, digital technology, and issues like health and wellness. “We have never had a time when an 18-year-old can know more about how to talk to shoppers than a VP with 40 years of experience,” one retail CEO admitted anonymously. “Letting go is hard, but letting them come up with ideas and fail lightly generates success in ways we never anticipated.”

Create opportunities for celebrity
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have changed our world profoundly. With every tweet, post, or Instagram video, a consumer gets instant praise from friends and family and, if they are lucky, their post goes viral and generates international celebrity.

As we know, working in retail is hard, and often unsung heroes like our amazing associates who work in meat, produce, bakery, and deli might not get the public recognition they deserve. Tech companies like Apple and Google, as well as online retailers like Zappos, all use their internal and external social media channels to publicly recognize their associates.

“It’s one thing to be told by your boss you are doing well, or get Employee of the Month,” says a friend of mine who works at Google. “It’s another if your friends and family see that we think you are an amazing person, doing a great job. Public recognition through social media is the least expensive but most powerful retention tool we use.”

Younger workers cite lack of recognition as one of the top reasons they leave a company, over pay, benefits, and vacation policy.

IGA has a number of ways expose the smart things your associates do—put them forward for a Best Practice Award, or tell us their story so we can recognize them as Employee of the Month in this newsletter, on the IGA website, and our IGA Facebook feeds. And don’t forget about local recognition: Put their picture up in store and recognize them on your social media feeds so their friends and family can see, too.

Build skills for the future
From investing in our public schools to teacher pay, it can sometimes seem like our country doesn’t value education. Yet associates value education and online training, listing it as one of the top reasons they choose to come to a company; lack of adequate training is one of the main reasons they flee a job.

The good news is that with the IGA Coca-Cola Institute, you already have a large, state-of-the-art digital training regimen ready to go for your IGA store. Younger associates are significantly more likely to take training in different skillsets, even those beyond their current job; and with the IGA classroom management training and the new classes the Institute releases regularly, IGA can offer a great solution for recruiting new talent.

Be a part of something meaningful
Millennial workers say that they want their work to make a difference. For example, over 60 percent prioritize a company’s dedication to social responsibility when choosing where to work. And they are 59 times more likely to endorse their company to friends and family if they feel they have a great workplace.

Good news for IGA—our stores feed communities, we support local charities and religious organizations, local schools and sports, and so much more. IGA stores make a difference every day in our communities. For Millennials who are also looking to make a difference, we can be a great solution.

Be warned though—they will push you to do more. Expect to be challenged on plastic waste, recycling, organics, and natural producers and other issues that both your workers and your consumers care about. If you attract new younger talent into your stores, they will ensure we continue to serve our communities better every day.

Cement your sell
It turns out we have a lot of resources—and the opportunity to create more—to attract new talent to our stores. Consider the last recruiting ad you ran. It could have run like this:

IGA is seeking enthusiastic, friendly associates to learn the craft of retail. You bring your smarts and willingness to learn, and we supply mentors, online and hands-on training, and a team atmosphere where you can help grow a local business. Bring your creativity and ideas, too—we create an environment where you can learn and grow as we serve our community.

Want more insight about recruiting and retaining younger works? Check out The IGA Minute’s Leadership Lessons for Employee Retention, and consider these additional sources:

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