Learning With Generation Next

How Work-Style Conflicts Offer Positive Opportunities

One of the ongoing conversations in the welding and gases distribution industry is about where we will find the next generation of industry workers, managers and leaders. Many of us now in this workforce are looking at our future years and our potential retirements. Already, there is a shortage of workers skilled and qualified in our field, and this will only increase over the next 10 to 15 years. Our replacements are going to have to come from somewhere. In line for those jobs are the youngest members of today’s workforce, “Generation Next.”

Generation Next is the current group of 18-to-25 year olds, “the cohort of young adults who have grown up with personal computers, cell phones and the Internet,” and “who came of age in the shadow of 9/11,” according to the Pew Research Center (http://www.people-press.org/2007/01/09/a-portrait-of-generation-next/).

I hope to demystify some common beliefs (and perhaps misperceptions) about this age group and focus on the benefits of working with them. I have found it’s well worth working through on-the-job style differences, understanding their “cause”-related work motivation, and investing some faith in their abilities—even if some workplace situations require adjustments to typical operating guidelines.

Here are examples from my own experiences.

Laptop Typing

Frequently, it seems, the issues that give rise to potential conflict seem to revolve around communication techniques.
One day, several of us were in a sit-down planning session and discussion about a new product. One of our young employees began to type, and it made many of us wonder if he was even listening to the discussion.

About the time I was going to ask him to pay attention, he surprised me. It turned out that in typing, he was doing research, and in that time had found a solution to the issue at hand. The meeting quickly went from talking about a problem to finalizing the prototype the company needed to solve the problem.

The lesson to me? One of the strengths of Generation Next employees is that they live and breathe in the moment. Due to their speed of typing, and agility and knowledge of different apps and search abilities, they contribute to an efficient, fast research process. It’s a great benefit, when harnessed correctly, to have a fast, nimble organization.

Here’s another example of why it’s important not to jump to conclusions if one of your younger workers is on the phone or laptop when you think they should be giving you their undivided attention.

During a one-on-one meeting with a very bright young person from our company’s product-development team, I found it difficult to concentrate and communicate because I could hear the person clicking away on his laptop. Was he hearing me, I wondered? He offered no visual contact and I wasn’t able to decipher his expressions and thoughts. It felt like I was in a foreign country and didn’t speak the language.

Develop Compromise

Together, that employee and I made a compromise. We decided to discuss a topic first, with the employee making key notes on a pad of paper. He would offer me some type of feedback or acknowledgement of our conversation. Then, I’d be OK with him typing on his laptop while I waited for the next point. Over time, that communication gap shrunk. I now can handle more of his typing while we talk, and he expresses more feedback.

Communication Basics

Communication structure and expectations are very different between the generations. What someone like me, as a Babyboomer, thinks should be natural isn’t that clear to a Generation Next young adult.

I’ve found that Generation Next people assume that they will simply follow through when they receive your text or email. However, those of my generation want confirmation. We have to know our message has been received.

Another thing: most members of this age group don’t necessarily like voicemail and usually don’t check to see if they have any. We remind them that many of our customers do like voicemail, so we need them to check the phones and if voicemails are there, to return those calls. As a solution, we added WAV files to be sent for voicemails, so our Gen Next workers could listen to them via a cell phone or iPad. We also added voicemail converted to text so it is received as email.

As company practice, we’ve covered other communication and customer service basics to establish performance expectations. For instance:

  • Determining when a meeting needs to be a “no phone” type—requiring turning off phones and checking them at later times.
  • The idea that customers may perceive someone isn’t paying attention to them if the staff member pulls out a phone and performs functions on it while you’re waiting on that customer. (It may be necessary to let the customer know that you’re checking a calendar or making a note of information.)
  • Showroom courtesy — so that when someone of the Babyboomer group is in the store, recognizing that person and validating them (as simple as saying, “I’ll be with you in just a moment.”)
  • Social Media protocols, including the type of company communication that should — or should not — be said or done via Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and others.

Conclusion

It’s worth it to find the balance of compromise and to work toward each other’s styles, comforts and strengths.
If you take the time to work with Generation Next people, you’ll find them to be efficient, fast, and quality workers. There’s a lot to be learned from them. They are different in their work approaches and that may require flexibility from their workplace and themselves. Issues that present initial conflict are great opportunities to understand them and adjust our companies to their strengths, in order to be an attractive employer and vendor in the years to come.
After all, these 18-25 year-old Generation Next-ers will, in time, become our next generation of customers, shop managers, purchasers, operations people and buying-decision makers.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Meet the Author
George Ratermann is president of Ratermann Manufacturing, Inc. of Livermore, California. He’s worked in the gases and welding industry since 1977. He can be reached at 800-264-7793 and at george@rmimfg.com.