Millennials aren’t just entering the workforce—they already make up 50 percent, according to a recent Forbes article, and by 2025, that percentage will grow to 75. It is imperative that companies with executives from Generation X and baby boomers start bringing this vastly growing pool of employees into the fold.
Trey Walters, president and founder of Applied Flow Technology (AFT) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, knew this was necessary. Here is what he did to open communication lines for the various age groups at his company, and why he did it.
P&S: What prompted you to form the millennial board at your office?
Walters: There was a speaker at the Hydraulic Institute (HI) 2017 fall meeting who challenged the audience on some misconceptions about millennials and encouraged everyone to understand some of the unique challenges millennials face today that previous generations did not have to face. A lot of them have big student loans and things my generation didn’t have. He showed research data to support his points and we found his presentation provocative.
P&S: How long ago was the millennial board formed?
Walters: I formed the millennial board within a month of the HI meeting—so late 2017. I called a meeting of all of our younger staff and appointed the youngest of all to be the interim leader until they formed a system of selecting their own leadership structure. The interim leader was a smart young lady engineer, 22 years old, and only six months out of school. They decided to name themselves the “Young Professionals” team. They call their own meetings and organize themselves as they see best. I wanted to make sure we don’t have blind spots in our company and how we’re dealing with customers. I encouraged them to organize and talk about their point of view and report to me and management their suggestions on things. If we’re not seeing things, I want them talk about it and come back to us.
P&S: What issues has the board brought to your attention, and what did you and the others in management decide?
Walters: Some issues they raised we were able to accommodate, some we were not. A big issue for many millennials who have obtained a college degree is significant student loan debt. This was brought up by the HI meeting speaker as well as by our Young Professionals team. We investigated this and there was nothing we could do beyond our normal bonus system. I think our government policymakers should seriously consider changing the tax law so that companies can help pay for student loans and get a tax benefit. For example, if one of our staff takes a university course today, we can pay for that education and count it as a business expense. Hence, the education expense is not taxed. However, if one of our staff took a university course before joining us and borrowed money to pay for that, and then joined our company, we cannot pay for that course taken in the past as a business expense. Any money we might provide to help pay off educational debt is thus counted as income to the individual, upon which they have to pay taxes. As I said, we looked into this and found there was nothing we could do about it beyond our normal bonus system.
An example of an issue we were able to implement was related to training. In general, we try to get our technical and nontechnical staff to professional training classes on a regular basis. And we budget for this. These are typically formal training classes and seminars. The Young Professionals team asked that we consider, on a case-by-case basis, that in addition to the formal training we supported, or instead of formal training, they be given a certain number of hours per month for informal self-training. With the proliferation of online resources today, this could mean a lot of things, including watching instructional YouTube videos. Or even just reading a professional journal or conference papers or things like Pumps & Systems print or digital content. So, we approved that—subject to approval and oversite from their manager. It also drove us to create a better tracking system for formal and informal training resources, which each manager can use to be proactive with their team on training.
P&S: Why would you deem this idea a success or recommend it to others?
Walters: My understanding is that one of the biggest successes for the Young Professionals team was the soft issue of just feeling heard—that their opinions and insights were valued by senior management. Many of the senior managers out there today are like me, from the baby boomers generation. However, in our case most of the direct users of our products are young engineer millennials. In each of our own millennial staff, we have this rich source of insight on the marketplace, our customers and our workplace. All of us would be foolish not to listen to them. I think our company culture already supported an openness to their ideas. But creating the Young Professionals team made that more clear cut and formalized it.