Millennials - the unforeseen business risk?

With an increasing number of nearing or recently qualified professionals upping sticks and leaving the world of engineering consultancy, Rebecca Wooding asks whether there is an industry-wide millennial exodus.

I recently attended my sixth leaving party of another millennial friend who is about to walk away from their career, friends, family and home to start an “adventure in the big unknown”. All of these friends are engineers, all highly educated and many of them graduates from top engineering and consultancy companies. Yet, they all have an overwhelming desire to get out and ‘experience’. This pattern is repeating in many millennials across the industry. But why is this happening and what does an exodus of nearing or recently qualified professionals mean to companies and the wider industry?

Millennials currently make-up around 50% of the workforce and typically span between those born in 1980-2000. Even within this range their exposure to the internet is greatly varied. Some will remember the old dial-up tone whilst others have only ever used fibre optic connections. Regardless, there is a consensus in the industry that millennials are ambitious, over-confident and impatient which ultimately results in them leaving their careers. My suggestion as to why is linked to the internet and accessibility of global mobility. 

It is a human tendency to keep up with the Joneses. But what happens when the Joneses are no longer just the people who live next door, but your entire extended network? We are comparing ourselves against the best bits of everyone we know and trying to shape all of that into our lives, but that it just simply not possible. Or perhaps you can have the career, the house, the freedom, the wedding, the cat, the full season skiing, the scuba diving lessons, the volunteer farm work, all whilst looking impeccably flawless. We constantly consider ourselves uniquely disadvantaged to our peers and this makes us dissatisfied and constantly striving.

Never before has a generation had such exposure to other cultures and possibilities. Post A-Level gap years are now commonly accepted and often expected. Whilst these young adults are off finding themselves, they are also discovering cultures, new perspectives and ultimately more opportunity. This experience may not only whet the appetite for more travel, it also shows us that we don’t have to accept the status quo, as was earlier more common, so we can appear more ambitious.

Available data shows we are starting families much later in life. Perhaps previous generations also felt an urge to ‘get it all out of their system’ prior to settling down, but with earlier first child ages, they simply wouldn’t have had the capital to go off into the distance. Additionally, the renting culture allows for a flexibility that owning a house perhaps might not. As such, millennials are in a unique position to take the opportunity to leave, which was not on offer to previous generations. 

I’ve heard many senior management refer to millennials as not respecting authority and hierarchy in the same way as ‘the good old days’. I agree, perhaps millennials are more prone to respecting a person if first given reason to, rather than simply respecting the title. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but one potential explanation to this perceived over-confidence is the ability to Google. 

Traditionally, your knowledge grew because you had experience or read or consulted a specialist. Now we have the world’s knowledge immediately at our fingertips. This presents a false confidence as millennials feel they can progress with the safety net of the internet to support them, developing a certain career-progress impatience. However, there is a huge difference in capability and understanding, between first-hand knowledge and a Wikipedia check and this needs to be understood.

Therefore, increasing exposure to more possibilities, more knowledge and postponement of achieving big life goals is resulting in those reaching nearly middle management to leave the industry. This presents a substantial and potentially growing risk to the industry, particularly in a time when the skills gap is growing. Could the late 20s exodus soon be as common as the late teen’s gap year? Can anything or should anything be done in the industry to prevent this? 

We will discuss this in a future Infrastructure Intelligence article.

Rebecca Wooding is the national vice-chair of the Progress Network for young engineers and a hydropower engineer with Mott MacDonald.