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Millennials Keep Quitting Their Jobs―But They Don’t Want To

I recently met one of my good friends for cocktails. She had finally hit her second anniversary with her company and we agreed a celebration was in order. Though we went to college together, she was one of the first of my millennial-aged friends to graduate and get a “real job” in the grown-up world. I couldn’t wait to celebrate the anniversary with her and toast to many more to come. I quickly learned, however, that she had something else in mind.

“I’m going to quit my job,” she mentioned between sips of her cocktail. I couldn’t believe it. Up until this point, her job seemed to be the perfect fit and she had appeared to be happy there. Just a month into her career, she referred to it as a “dream job.” I couldn’t wrap my mind around why she would decide to quit after just two years, but she later spilled that it was because she felt unengaged in almost all aspects of her work.

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She isn’t alone. According to an article from Forbes, as many as 74 percent of millennial workers plan to quit their jobs sometime within the next three years. And that same article says that only 28 percent of workers plan to keep their current job for longer than five years. The days when employees would spend decades of their lives with one company prior to retirement are long gone.

It’s Not About The Ping-Pong Table

So what is it about the current state of work that has so many millennials running for the exit? Is it a problem with work structure? Or does it have something to do with the perceived attitudes of millennial professionals? For a better understanding, I asked Eric Rea, a fellow millennial as well as the cofounder and CEO of Silicon Slopes-based tech giant, Podium. “I think it’s a matter of engagement,” he says. “It’s been my experience that millennial professionals deeply value being connected to what they are doing and the effect it is having on the world.”

Engagement. I perked up just as soon as I heard the word. A lack of engagement and professional fulfillment is exactly why my good friend ditched her so-called dream job. A study from Clutch says as many as 40 percent of millennial workers feel that they are unfulfilled and unengaged in their current jobs, leaving many to pursue job options elsewhere. Cue the resignation letter.  

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“[Millennial workers] are wanting to make a difference. They’re wanting to be challenged. They’re wanting to explore new ideas and opportunities,” says Cassie Whitlock, the director of human resources at BambooHR. “If you can create a compelling experience and opportunity within your organization, they don’t have to leave your company.”

But according to Mr. Rea, the trick to creating an engaging workplace with a compelling experience doesn’t quite equate to free sodas, ping-pong tables, unlimited PTO, or any other “classic” representations of what an engaging company culture looks like. “I think we’ve been conditioned to believe that the attention of millennial professionals is bought with free drinks, fully-stocked kitchens, and ping-pong tables,” he says. “If our company culture was built around these benefits, it wouldn’t have lasted longer than the Vanilla Coke in our break room. While these perks dominate recruiting efforts in the tech world, I think we are losing out on what millennials are actually wanting in the process.”

It’s About Finding Meaning

If a millennial’s long-term loyalty to a company can’t be bought, then what exactly do these young professionals need to become more fulfilled and engaged for longer periods of time at work? To find out, I asked Allison Brown, the senior communications manager at Kodiak Cakes.

“I think my ideal company to work for empowers their employees and sets them on a clear growth path,” she says. “As a millennial, I’m young in my career and I want to know where I’m working is helping me achieve my goals.” She also mentions that she thinks millennials feel the “two-year itch” to move to another job because their current companies aren’t doing enough to help them reach their career goals, causing a lack of engagement and feelings of unfulfillment.

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She’s right. Many millennials start a job looking to grow their careers, not quit after just a few years of employment. A survey from Instructure says that as many as 90 percent of millennial employees are looking to grow their careers within their current companies. It also says that 86 percent of millennial employees find that further training and developmental opportunities at work would keep them from leaving their current jobs to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

“Opportunity for true advancement and growth [is important],” says AJ Herold, a millennial and the director of digital marketing at Oz Marketing. “No one wants to remain stagnant in the same position. I have always been a person that wants to learn and develop new skills, and I think a lot of my generation is the same.”

Mr. Rea and his team at Podium―who are actually composed of 80 percent millennials―are well aware of the importance of growth to this generation and they’re doing what they can to provide educational opportunities to employees to help them grow their career within Podium. They do so with a training series called “Owning Your Career.” The series features classes focused on storytelling, public speaking, leveling up in your career, mentorship, innovative thinking, building a personal brand, and more. Mr. Rea says that these classes have been beneficial for everyone at Podium, from new employees to members of the executive team.

“Our entire structure is built for growth and education,” Mr. Rea tells me. “When you just started a company four years ago and [you’re experiencing] the growth we are seeing, it’s imperative that you find young, hungry contributors that are eager to grow in their responsibilities.”

Like Podium, HireVue is also working to provide all employees with the resources to further their careers in the hopes of keeping them with the company. Michelle Vargas, the senior vice president of human resources, tells me they offer educational reimbursement to employees who are looking to continue formal education, develop specific skills, or get certifications beyond what their current role requires. HireVue also promotes hiring for new jobs internally, keeping good employees with the company, all things helping to better retain millennials.

“Millennials make up a big portion of our workforce and many of them are in critical roles that are critical to the success of the company,” Ms. Vargas says. “HireVue has made it a priority to provide a workplace that encourages them to stay and provides them with opportunities to grow and develop so they won’t want to leave.”

And Having The Opportunity To Grow

Regular, quality feedback from management is important too. 72 percent of millennials who receive regular feedback from management report feeling more fulfilled and satisfied at work.

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“Feedback is critical. Most of us millennials want to know that we are doing a great job,” says Mr. Herold. He also mentions that he’s noticed feedback is given more frequently at the start of a new job, and becomes less frequent as the employee becomes more comfortable with their new responsibilities. He thinks that keeping feedback consistent over the long-term would be greatly beneficial for all employees, not just millennials.

“If there isn’t that feedback, I think a lot of us assume that we must have messed it up or [that we didn’t] do as good as we did it before, because last time there was that feedback. We also want to know how to do better in order to progress,” he says. “We don’t want to be average.” But there is a fine line to toe when talking about the perfect amount of quality feedback for employees. After all, a manager who is a little too involved in every aspect of daily activities is enough to make anyone quit, but frequent guidance is crucial.

“I can take constructive criticism,” says Renae Cowley, a young millennial and lobbyist at Foxley & Pignanelli. “In fact, I crave it because I always want to be improving. Stagnation is boring and soul-crushing, I want to grow in the role I am in. It isn’t just about receiving words of affirmation, but I want to excel at my job, and that requires the guidance and direction from my direct supervisors or employer.”

Sources at Qualtrics say that the ideal frequency of employee feedback is usually around once weekly. The type given, as well as the frequency, should differ depending on management style and the nature of the industry. Of course, employees should also feel comfortable with the frequency of feedback, and it may differ for each team member.

“For me, I probably want a hybrid of twice annually and ‘as it happens,’” says Ms. Cowley. “I don’t want to always have to wait for a formal review to get feedback, especially how quickly things move in my industry. I really like having timely communication when possible and a more in-depth discussion about performance and goal setting twice annually.”

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As of April 2018, millennials are the largest part of our labor force, outnumbering baby boomers by three million. This statistic alone is the reason why retaining millennial employees should be of high importance for any company. And if the key to retaining the largest part of our workforce, lies with more frequent feedback and opportunities for internal growth, that seems a small price to pay. Doesn’t everyone want those things?

“I hate that we continue to talk about millennials as if they are an isolated or unknown group. The reality is, they’re people just like everyone else. They sometimes approach things a little differently than generations before them have, but the same is true of those past generations,” says Ms. Whitlock. “At the end of the day we all want to be appreciated for what we do; we all want to accomplish something meaningful, and millennials are no different than everyone else.”