Onboarding the Next Generation: This is Not Your Father's First Day On the Job

Lynn Shleeter

An executive vice president of a Fortune 500 company who champions a highly successful sales internship program describes his college internship experience fondly as the "doughnut delivery job." He had no expectations, and the company offered limited structure. Not so for today’s Millennial generation. These interns or new hires expect to be welcomed on Day One. And given that they know much more than yesterday’s new employees about their internships or full-time jobs and their expected career paths, companies need to have more than the basic structure in place to meet them.

When hiring recent college graduates, companies must realize that this generation expects more than its father’s company orientation program. Gone are the administrative days when new hires and interns received a badge, benefits package and cursory company overview and landed at their workstations before lunchtime. The terms of engagement have shifted for companies that want to attract and retain younger workers.


This major attitude change for talent management staff around hiring is because of the war for talent in today’s larger labor market where fewer people are available to fill the jobs baby boomers are leaving. Starting in 2010, according to the Social Security Administration the demographic growth-rate balance will start to shift, and by 2015 the 65-and-over age group starts to grow at a faster rate than the 20-64 age group.

Greater competition for people is mirrored by increased marketplace competition where it’s essential for all new employees to carry a strong brand message.

Onboarding Trend

Onboarding is the process that organizations use to introduce, train, integrate and coach new hires to the culture and methods of the company during their first year. This is especially critical within sales organizations since new representatives become the company’s face to the customer. The partnership between 3M and the College of St. Catherine has examined new trends in "onboarding" around Millennials working to develop plans reflecting their employment expectations. It’s a regular topic in the Sales Executive Forum—whose members come from Wells Fargo, ADC, Thomson and others—as companies grapple with how to strategically connect with Millennial workers.

For Millennials, there’s a need to reinforce that they’ve made the right decision by hearing how valuable their skills are to the company, what types of assignments they will work on and how the company will support their professional development.

Onboarding Millennials Into the Workforce

Intentionally connecting new hires or interns to the company as soon as possible is a crucial activity. Helping them understand the company’s culture and brand through a structured onboarding program is an integral process.

Advanced courses should support interns and ensure the company gained a valuable worker and potential employee. The ideal course includes a learning contract that outlines intern job responsibilities, learning objectives and the company’s expected deliverables. This signed contract should keep both parties accountable. The instructor should meet with the intern’s supervisor for a mid-point and final review to ensure learning objectives and project deliverables are met.

"A written plan for the internship should provide a variety of activities, sense of control and vision to work towards," says Nat Porter, vice president of KI, a Green Bay-based furniture manufacturer. "Once you’ve set parameters, Millennials like the freedom to figure out how to get the job done on their own."

And according to Bill Smith, director of the Sales Center of Excellence at 3M: "Internships allow the company to engage students who are recognized for their academic talent and have a strong interest in sales. The internship acquaints students with company norms, policies, job roles—thus giving insights to culture fit. Working across the company on assignments, the prospective employee develops contacts and resources. The ultimate advantage to full-time employment is stepping into the company with an established network—putting the new hire ahead of another person without company experience. Networks are how we get work done. And starting Day One with an internal network makes the difference."

Meaningful Projects

Projects are key to providing individuals with "real work" that makes a difference in the organization and will allow them to develop new skills to add to their resumes, challenging interns with today’s business issues. In one company, interns are asked to figure out how to increase field usage of Customer Relationship Management/Sales Force Automation to capture customer information or learn how to improve collaboration between inside and field sales teams, which exposes candidates to broader company issues and resources. In this project intern teams are assigned a manager/coach to provide guidance and resources as well as company perspective for addressing the issue. Final project presentations are viewed by executives who value the quality work and give outside perspectives and actionable recommendations.

In another organization, each summer intern class selects one nonprofit agency from many company-sponsored community programs to donate service hours. This past summer, one group chose to clean and paint a lunchroom in a downtown adolescent drop-in center. This experience further developed the interns’ team-building skills as they organized their community service outreach. It also connected them to the company’s community mission, thus improving perceptions of the organization.

In addition to real work, comprehensive internship programs start early to "embed" or integrate future employees. Good communication from talent management should include employment offers, start dates and assignments followed by high readiness for intern orientation and contemporary manager/coach selection. By increasing the number of attachments, an intern has more to lose from initial network building, if he or she does not accept a full-time offer. The company benefits by converting former interns into full-time employees—who are already up to speed with the culture, products and customers.

One summer intern shared her excitement about the opportunity to continue working full time beyond her internship end date and then transition to 15 hours a week during her senior year. She scheduled her work hours around class times. Another student confirmed that her college would continue to monitor her experience as she continues in an inside sales role through the fall semester.

Face Time Demands

Millennials demand face time with supervisors and expect more from these interactions. These interns and new hires benefit from open communication from highly involved supervisors to learn more about their roles, organizational norms, performance expectations and realistic career goals. In addition they receive counsel about the knowledge and skills necessary for advancement as well as with resources for personal and professional development. The value of a contemporary manager is critical to engaging new hires.

What seems increasingly important today is earlier, more frequent communications with candidates and new hires in the medium they are most comfortable. Technology should play many roles in the onboarding process. For example, at one company new interns started a Facebook group to stay connected and to celebrate successes with each other. In another organization, the interns recommended an internal Wiki Enterprise site to enter topic specific best practices that could be shared across divisions. Each intern, in a class of 18, posted a podcast with advice for the next summer’s interns.

As many college students complete summer internships, talent management staffs should reflect on the connections and perceptions developed during their 10-12 week experience as an excellent way to jumpstart the onboarding process for this generation.

Adapting to Millennials is not entirely the employer’s responsibility—this generation also needs to adjust to a real world that doesn’t revolve around semesters and finals. Internships are the bridge to move from college to the business world. And smart companies will recognize that contemporary onboarding approaches actually enhance the hiring and retention process for all new hires.

First published on Human Resources IQ.