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With the baby boomers stepping out of the spotlight, Generation Y has come to the fore.

What do you get when you raise kids to believe they can do anything, give them all the technical gadgets they’ll need to make that happen, send them off to excellent schools, and then spit them out into a job market where companies fight tooth and nail for the privilege of employing them?

Generation Y.

Check out these statistics: people aged 55 to 65 make up about 15 per cent of B.C.’s population. Those aged 18 to 28: almost exactly the same. Now consider that the B.C. economy added 400,000 new jobs in the past 10 years. Clearly these youngsters are among the hottest commodities in the province, not to mention around the world.

Gen Y – also known as Generation Next, the Millennials and the Echo Boom – has more power and greater choices than any cohort to come before it, and companies around the world are trying desperately to understand who they are, what they want and how they work.

With the dominant baby boomer generation starting to retire, the challenge for businesses can be boiled down to three big questions: How do you attract young workers in an increasingly competitive labour market? How do you manage them successfully when their attitudes and behaviours differ from their older workmates? And how do you market to them as their spending power grows? You need help, and we’ve done the research.

We’ll tell you about some B.C. companies that have devoted plans to deal with Gen Y. Each has recognized that this generation brings unique challenges to business, and each has accepted a critical idea: in this labour market, businesses are adapting to Gen Y, not the other way around.

One quick note at the outset: Gen Y describes the children of the baby boomers, but there is no consensus on exactly what age group this refers to. For the sake of this article, it includes anyone born after 1979, based on what Canadian demographers call the Echo Boom.

 

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What Y wants PricewaterhouseCoopers' pitch

For 23-year-old Mike Woodward, landing his first career job was hard work – in a way. B.C.’s major companies hosted nightly career events for a solid month during his last year in UBC’s accounting program, fighting their competitors for the attention of the soon-to-be graduates. Several events had open bars. “It was very wearing,” Woodward says. “It was tough to commit that time and do all your schooling.”

It’s probably fair to say that those who remember recessions have a very different idea of what it’s like to look for a job. But this is a boom-time generation.

In the end, Woodward opted for Pricewaterhouse-Coopers LLP (PWC), where he’s been working for just under a year. And wouldn’t you know, they’re throwing yet another career fair his way. This time it’s an attempt by the HR gurus to ensure he’s not too easily tempted away by competing firms.

A knot of PWC department heads have come from as far as China to speak at their Vancouver office’s waterfront tower, all with a consistent message for the 100-plus twentysomethings in the room: if you ever want to work overseas or switch careers or work with a new boss, you can do it without leaving the firm.

If this makes the multinational professional-services giant seem desperate and the small group of B.C. youngsters seem spoiled, the youth here don’t seem to mind. Amy Cunningham, for example, is a success story PWC had to work for. Over a table decked with cookies, carrot sticks and pamphlets, the smiling 28-year-old Aussie says she has worked for PWC for 11 years. In Australia they’re hiring new staff before they’ve finished school; she was recruited at 17. Before coming to Vancouver, she worked in Sydney, Australia, and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

Of the 30 peers who started with her, about 25 have since changed offices, most to other countries, many to other companies. PWC had no trouble accommodating her travelling itch, Cunningham says: “It was an opportunity for the firm to work with me, so it was a win-win situation.”

Would she have left the firm if her bosses hadn’t been so amenable? “Absolutely.”[pagebreak]

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How Y works Telus calling

What’s weird about this meeting is that it looks just like a university tutorial. A dozen clean-cut twentysomethings lounge around a square of tables in jeans and untucked shirts. They’ve got notebooks, Starbucks, cell phones and backpacks. But their shoes are nicer.

The room is in Telus Corp.’s concrete fortress on Willingdon Avenue in Burnaby. The door is marked “Leadership Development.” According to the plan, these youngsters will be leading the company one day. One of them is 22.

In free-market democracies, the best and brightest supposedly find their way to the top through competition. This feels more like monarchy, where you pick your leaders young and train them to become what the tribe needs. Guess that makes these young people the princes and princesses of Telus.

category_online-only.gifAdvice: The workplace

Amy McCallion, for instance, is bright, well-spoken, profoundly charismatic and clearly looking for responsibility. The 26-year-old has been with the program for just over three months now, after quitting a disappointing job with an investment-banking firm.

So after university, a co-op stint and a few jobs, how does it feel to be chosen as a future leader of B.C.’s biggest corporation?

“To be honest, I kind of like the attention,” McCallion says. “I’ve worked in companies that are happy to let you sit by yourself in a corner, so it’s nice.”

These youth spend their workdays all over the company, rotating through the many divisions a few months at a time, leading small projects, meeting the staff, working with customers. Everyone starts by answering phones in the call centre; where they end up is largely up to them.

This is one of several such programs being carried out by Telus, with others focusing on IT, engineering and finance. Josh Blair is Telus’s executive VP of human resources and one of the thinkers driving the programs. He rolls off a list of things Gen Ys are seeking in their work: team building, variety, interesting jobs, moral satisfaction – these programs are meant to deliver it all.

To create a workplace that not only attracts Gen Ys but uses them to their full potential, leaders need to understand these desires and change their organizations to deliver, Blair says. Because despite the lightheartedness of this morning’s meeting, Telus’s strategy isn’t a feel-good exercise. Like organizations across the industrialized world, the company is losing its leaders to retirement, Blair says. And if Telus is going to come out ahead as the scramble for new managers grows, Gen Y gets what Gen Y wants.

“They’re always going to have more jobs available than there are people to perform the job,” Blair says. “They’re always going to have their choice.”[pagebreak]

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How Y buys Smak’s strategy

Kevin Foster is selling something, but he’s not really a salesman; more accurately, he’s the ad. The 27-year-old video-game designer is partying at the trendy Caprice Night Club in downtown Vancouver, sporting a prominent moustache, a tight-fitting suit and a bright patterned shirt with generous lapels. Foster has been growing the moustache for a month, along with some co-workers at Action Pants Inc., to promote the annual “Movember” fundraising campaign. They and their mustachioed Canadian compatriots helped raise $46,000 for prostate-cancer research, and this is their ’80s-themed victory bash.

During November, Foster says he explained the campaign to about 50 people who asked him about his out-of-date facial hair. His 420-some Facebook friends also got to see weekly updates as his upper lip filled in.

But Kevin, doesn’t that mean your moustache just transformed you into a walking billboard?“Exactly,” he admits, with a laugh. “I’m doing it because it’s a great cause.”

The international campaign’s Canadian effort was organized by the Vancouver marketing company Smak, and this is what they do: publicity stunts, guerrilla advertising, experiential marketing. It’s all about getting your audience to take part in the ad and then pass your messages along, says Smak co-founder Alan Bedingfield. Young people respond especially well to messages they get from their peers, he explains, which is what makes the charming Kevin Foster such an effective billboard.

“They’re savvy. They understand when they’re being marketed to, so we’ve got to do it in different ways that involve them,” he says. “Then all of a sudden it’s them being pulled into the advertisement willingly, as opposed to us trying to force-feed it down their throats.”

 

So how does it work? Well, consider when Smak scattered a bunch of unmarked, empty fridges around Toronto, leaving the city perplexed until news stories revealed that it was all about the city’s struggling food banks. Or the time they hired topless young women to hand out sample sex products at Granville and Robson streets to create a buzz around North Vancouver’s O’My Products Inc. The passersby become part of the act, Bedingfield says, and if they’re impressed by the experience, they’ll pass the message on in a you-won’t-believe-what-I-saw-downtown-today kind of way.

“If you give this group of people a positive experience, they’re going to talk about it and remember it for a long time,” he says.