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 Why a Millennial Chooses Milwaukee: Communication and Culture

Tuesday, August 4, 2015 - by thegoodjobs

by Hannah Leigh Thompson, The Good Jobs intern


I have lived in Milwaukee most of my life, and I consider this city my home. Milwaukee is a beautiful city, an entrepreneurial city, with a fantastic food and music culture – uniquely suited for my millennial demographic. But I’m fairly sure that my demographic doesn’t know that.

I am a millennial, home in Milwaukee on summer break – but this fall, I’ll return to Stanford University, where I study mechanical engineering. Both here and across the country, people assume that I’ll be staying in California after graduation, never loosening my grip on the “bleeding edge” tech hotspot that is Silicon Valley. Some were surprised to hear that I was coming back this summer, for a fantastic internship with The Good Jobs, a savvy talent acquisition startup rooted in the gorgeous Third Ward.

My summer internship provides me with an inside-out view of the hiring process. I spend most of the year surrounded by fretful students, obsessing over how they’ll get a job with a company they like after they graduate. This summer, however, I’ve had the opportunity to understand the employers’ challenges, watching companies take action to be more attractive to the talent they seek. My parents’ friends chuckle and tell me that I shouldn’t worry: as millennials interested in science, tech, and entrepreneurship, my peers and I are rather hot commodities in the talent acquisition game. But I also hear business leaders condemn the fickle millennial, and wonder why young job seekers seem so disengaged from the hiring techniques that worked for the past 30 years.

Given my current, rather unique position, I’d like to offer my perspective for the mutual benefit of both parties: millennials (my people!) and employers (soon to be my people!). I see two problems here. First, companies (especially those in the more traditional Midwest) are quick to dismiss millennials, often indicted as narcissistic and touchy-feely, and so difficult to attract with standard job-board posts. Second, in the increasingly talent-driven market that has taken over post-recession, employers find it difficult to attract the “A”-level applicants they need to thrive. Though it’s probably too late to assimilate my generation into the corporate mindset of our parents, employers work hard to solve these two problems – and the solution is not nearly as fiendish as they think.

Just so we’re all on the same page, I’ll break down the “millennial” stigma as I see it, and what it means for talent-hungry employers. Critically, we find money far less important than our parents did. Out of 1482 respondents to a The Good Jobs survey, only 3% of today’s job seekers would prioritize compensation over culture in their next job. We are more likely to consider trading security for the thrill of owning our own businesses (we want the freedom to ride our bikes to work, to not put on a suit when we arrive, to set our own hours and spend time volunteering for organizations we are passionate about). And, perhaps most damnable of all to future employers, we have a different view of the lifespan of a job. In a recent Heartland Monitor poll, while 53% of older respondents thought it would be best to stay at one company for the majority of their working life, the largest share (49%) of young respondents fully expected to move from employer to employer. I know that most of my peers find the idea of lifetime loyalty to a corporation laughable.

Not only do we view work differently, we have different ideas about where to find it. Especially after the recession, young people have been migrating en masse to tech and energy hubs like San Francisco, San Jose, Austin, New York and Chicago. Millennials stay urban, as we are far less likely to move out to the suburbs than our counterparts 20 years ago. Milwaukee does OK on this metric – young people are moving in, rather than fleeing. But not quite enough, apparently, for talent acquisition. What’s the draw of places like the Bay Area, and how can Milwaukee communicate that we are just as good as, if not better than, a coastal metropolis?

Obviously, cities like San Francisco and New York offer immense resources and cachet. They house big-name companies that make my power-hungry friends woozy with delight. And that name-brand appeal may be difficult to replicate here. But the most powerful draw to places like Silicon Valley is their perceived business culture – and I don’t see any problems with Milwaukee’s business culture. So-called “B Cities” like Milwaukee can offer us the flexibility and the community (not to mention the parking and affordable music scene) we crave. Milwaukee’s only sticking point is that employers fail to market their culture.

Millennials look at slick startups in the Valley and see the kind of work they want – short, project-based assignments, opportunities to work with teams of brilliant young innovators, inclusive and engaging workplace environments. Even if they don’t stay long – two years, or three – the work they do makes the world a better place. Just to think about that kind of opportunity makes me, and my friends, happy.

When we think about Milwaukee, though, what do we imagine? Who knows? It’s like the difference between Google and, say, Big Engineering Firm X – I know that working for Google is fast-paced and fun, with new challenges every day and fantastic amenities and a thriving intellectual community. I know this because Google shares their culture. Constantly. How else would I know Google offers wi-fi in their shuttle buses and an organic cafeteria? They communicate culture and what makes them a unique employer. But Firm X? I bet it’s a great company, I just don’t know for sure. They haven’t told me why I should apply for their jobs. They just tell me they are hiring. Why should I choose them? And if, out of the blue, I got job offers from both, I would pick Google even if X offered more pay. Transparency fosters trust. I don’t have to guess. Firm X might have a fantastic work environment – but my generation craves transparency. When companies are up-front about their culture, I feel connected to their mission, and motivated to join their team. I know that not every employer can offer what Google can offer, but I’ll take upfront descriptions about the workplace environment rather than blank pages or platitudes (“Our workplace is fun and flexible!”) any day. Companies need employer branding as much as product branding – and any brand is better than no brand.

So this is not a problem of Milwaukee’s culture – this is a communication problem. This city has a thriving entrepreneurial spirit. I know of many fantastic businesses that offer fun and productive office environments, engaging problem-solving opportunities, supportive team members, and chances to make a difference in the world. I am lucky to be employed by one. But I wouldn’t know that if I didn’t live and work around the city. If companies here are trying to attract my hotshot peers, they need to tell us and show us why. As young job seekers, it’s not that we have a negative view of Milwaukee’s business culture – we just don’t perceive what should draw us here.

Mine is a generation of information hounds. We were raised to research, to read reviews and vivid product descriptions, with the answer to any question just a few keystrokes away. So businesses need to show us that they have what we want – is your career site as good as your client-facing page? Do you have a social media presence? Do you understand what the new generation of job seekers needs, and can you advertise what you provide?

So, to Milwaukee employers: I love it here. I’d love to come back after I graduate, and I’d love to stay. And it would take just a bit of marketing to get me, and my peers, to do just that.


Hannah Leigh Thompson is a Milwaukeean studying mechanical engineering at Stanford University, class  of 2018. She attended Whitefish Bay High School (and is incredibly thankful to the teachers there, who expanded students’ hearts as well as their brains) and looks forward with great excitement to her future as a student and a job seeker. She spent many happy hours playing in the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra and biking the trails of the city, and could talk for hours about music, cycling, architecture, and good books (fiction and otherwise).

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