At EDA Contractors Inc., they call carpenter Brian Doogan by his nickname, “Chief.”
But on the job, Chief, 56, isn’t the chief, despite decades of experience building buildings. Instead, the baby boomer reports to someone nearly 30 years his junior, foreman Chris Hallahan, 27.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” Doogan said. “He’s a smart guy. He knows how to talk to people. If I’m working with a good foreman who’s sharp, it doesn’t matter what age he is.”
Six generations work in today’s offices and factories. Some are in their 70s and 80s – part of the Silent Generation. They work next to the youngest workers, known as Gen Z, the centennials, the iGen, or the post-millennials, who were born in the mid-1990s through the early 2000s. The oldest are just graduating from college.
To respond, companies, including 2019 Top Workplaces winners, are broadening their benefits, particularly adding flexible schedules and age-tailored financial counseling. Many offer training on interpersonal/intergenerational relationships. Most importantly, many are taking deliberate steps to bring the generations together so they can draw on one another’s strengths and offset one another’s weaknesses.
Foreman Hallahan takes that idea literally. “A big thing with me is that you always try to take care of the older guys,” he said. On his crew, the youngest workers pick up heavy sheets of plywood or crawl into tight spots.
Doogan said Hallahan relies on him to work independently on complicated tasks, so Hallahan can direct less-experienced crew members. Also, Doogan said, “he expects me to show them the different tricks of the trade.”
As the youngest generation joins the workforce, employers are beginning to discern the differences between them, now ages 9 to 22, and the millennials, who are in their mid-20s and 30s. Characteristics are emerging, according to a 2018 analysis of Census data by the Pew Research Center:
How does this translate in the workplace?
Hint: It’s not all about beer and ping-pong.
“They need constant and instant feedback,” said Katherine Nelson, assistant chair of human resource management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. “They have never existed in a time when there wasn’t an internet. They don’t remember life without a smartphone.” They like texting and social media, Nelson and executives said, so this group needs encouragement to hold an actual conversation – face-to-face or on the phone.
Like all young people, they are idealistic, Nelson said. “One thing that is startling is their attachment to their families. Their families are very important to them.” That means, she said, that they want scheduling flexibility even more than millennials, who made a reputation for themselves as employees demanding a better work-life balance.
In college, students learn about corporate scandals – Wells Fargo, Facebook – along with analysis of the role business played in the 2007-09 recession. “There is tremendous concern about the environment. There is tremendous concern about trust in institutions,” Nelson said. “They are scared about having to work for a scoundrel.”
To build trust in his company, EDA Contractors president Ed DeAngelis hired a consultant to teach emotional intelligence to all his employees, from carpenters to comptrollers. The goal is to eliminate bullying at work. He also rebranded his human resource director as a culture director. The director’s job includes devising events so office staff in Bensalem and construction crews can mingle across job titles and age groups. An example? An axe-throwing contest at a venue, named, appropriately enough, Bury the Hatchet.
“When you are dealing with a younger crowd, you have to acknowledge their ideas of how the world is,” DeAngelis said. “The older group, you have to convince them that you are on their team, but you have to get them to make some adjustments to move forward.”
At Vertex Inc., a tax software company in King of Prussia, chief executive officer David DeStefano noticed a change in what happens when fresh-out-of-college folks join the company’s 1,000 workers worldwide, about 766 of them here.
In the past, he said, younger workers needed time to ramp up, but now “they are so technically savvy already that they are able to contribute far faster than we thought.” Vertex has adjusted by making opportunities available sooner. “I have to let go and put them on the front lines quicker.”
Like companies nationwide, regional Top Workplaces are expanding benefits helpful to parents as millennials move through childbearing years. Edmund Optics Inc., in Barrington, provides a 25 percent day-care subsidy. “That’s a big deal for women, especially,” said Marisa Edmund, chief marketing officer. The company is female- and family-owned, and 30 to 40 percent of its engineers are women.
Seer Interactive, a Philadelphia tech company, expanded parental leave programs, said Emily Allen, director of people operations and success.
“People are beginning to think about having families,” she said. Seer offers 12 weeks of fully paid parental leave, plus four more weeks of part-time work, during which the new parent can gradually scale up to full-time hours.
“It’s an extremely competitive benefit,” Allen said. The company also offers unlimited time off and flexible hours.
Younger workers also crave development, so companies are beefing up tuition reimbursement programs. At Seer, a popular benefit is the $1,000 per year, per employee, Kaizen stipend for professional and personal growth, referring to the Japanese concept of continuous improvement. “I use mine to send myself and my team members to recruiting industry conferences,” she said.
At Urban Engineers Inc., in Philadelphia, the 233-member staff ranges from college age to age 75. Meredith Clark, vice president and director of human resources, said the company is committed to benefits for all ages. Parents or people returning to college, for example, can apply for a “special circumstances” leave permitting a reduced schedule, with pay and benefits prorated.
For older workers, “we have a program in place to enable semi-retirement. We absolutely want them to be around. We rely on their experience and expertise,” Clark said. “It makes it easier for them to retire. It’s mutually beneficial.”
Probably the most important strategy is to bring generations together, formally, through mentoring programs, or informally.
At Graham Co., a Philadelphia insurance company, it’s a byproduct of the company’s training program. Graham prefers to hire people with experience in other fields and then teach them insurance through six months of classes. The cohorts form a bond across generations that persists long after the training ends, said Karen Boyle, vice president of human resources. “It wasn’t intentional,” she said. “But now that we see how great it is, we’re very deliberate about it.”
Also, starting in July in response to the younger generation’s need for feedback, “we’re going to have company-wide training in how to have those crucial conversations” to make sure, she said, “that everyone’s working off the same vocabulary.”
At Independence Blue Cross, employees can join one of nine affinity groups, such as an LGBTQ group, meeting people across generations but with similar concerns, said Jeanie Heffernan, senior vice president and human resources officer.
“We have the Blue Crew,” she said. The health insurer regularly sends the Crew, its army of volunteers, into the community for service projects. That appeals to community-minded younger workers but also creates opportunities for employees to know each other across departments and across generations.
In the end, common sense and respect matter most.
That’s Hallahan’s strategy on EDA’s construction sites. As a young foreman, he had to get comfortable giving orders. “You think, ‘These guys have been doing this for 30 years. I’ve been here for six or seven. What am I doing here?’ ”
He asks for advice and feedback. “I ask, ‘Is there anything I can do to make your job easier?’ Because that will make my job easier.