Human Potential

Continuous Learning: Millennials Want It, Organizations Need To Foster It

My friends and I learned the hard way. As baby boomers, we entered the workforce in the '60s, '70s, and '80s with the fresh-faced expectation of 'jobs for life'. Many of us assumed we'd fill out our W-4, buy our first car, get married, raise our kids, and finally retire with the same company's name at the top of our paycheck. My idyll was shattered when my Fortune 10 employer - a company which had never downsized its staff in its 100-year history - launched the first of what became a decade of annual staff reductions. Most of my generation had received the same wake-up call by the end of the millennium.

Fast forward to 2016. The millennials harbor no illusions. Two similar studies on millennials' job outlook, one published in January by Infosys and one released last week by ManpowerGroup, underscore the sharp re-set of their expectations. They want employment security, but know that it's elusive; they've cleverly redefined security in terms of career, not job. They think in terms of serial jobs, job portfolios, gigs. Long-term career growth in one company is the ideal - but they know it is hard to find.

However, in addition to their yearning for security (ManpowerGroup finds that 87% list security as their highest priority), they simultaneously want change. Born of the fast-paced digital world, they crave a steady diet of new experiences. Few, apparently, want to stay in one position for more than a year. These are seemingly contradictory priorities. How and where do they converge, and what are the implications both for individuals and for employers?

Learning is the glue that twines these threads together - the quest for security and the hunger for new experiences. Learnability is the skill of the hour; individuals must be able to acquire new skills and adapt. They need personal agility in shifting from one role to the next. Learnability is the key to career security, giving the individual the ability to ride the crest of successive waves of strategy, technology and product innovation. It also offers a path to new experiences and responsibilities at the desired pace.

The takeaway for individuals is that learning is not optional. Whether this means taking advantage of company training, seeking training on their own time, working with superiors to chart a course across a progression of roles, or job hopping to tick off developmental needs - employees cannot stand still. Most millennials grasp that they need to invest in lifelong growth and development to be secure.

So what's the takeaway for employers? With talent as one of today's biggest differentiators, employers have to provide continual learning - whether in the form of formal training or job experiences. The Infosys study found that millennials recognize that technology skills are only half the story; they view soft skills as equally critical. Employers ignore this at their own risk. In addition to the standard corporate curricula, many businesses are now exploring the use of MOOCs - massive open online courses - to enrich employees' overall learning experiences. Through partnerships with entities such as Coursera, edX, or Udacity, they are offering a rich portfolio of learning experiences that allow employees to explore new interests at their own pace. Gamification is helping employers drive continued learning through challenges and games.

Some new approaches might also be timely. Could partner companies in a value chain create exchange programs that help talented employees tack between companies, offering them broadening opportunities while remaining within a managed talent pool? Employers have long-managed rotational programs within the bounds of their own organization; could that be extended across a value chain or network of partners? This might satisfy millennials' appetite for new experiences without losing them to the larger market.

It's time to think creatively about creating cultures of learning in our organizations. Thirty years ago, companies struggled to get employees to attend training. Today's talent leaders realize that a continual learning proposition is a differentiator that attracts and retains top talent - and helps them win in the marketplace.