Millennials and tech: Round pegs in a square cubicle farm

Millennials' high expectations are forcing global changes in IT hiring and company culture

Millennials are too picky --focused on lifestyle, not work. You might think this is a complaint unique to American employers. But as I'm discovering in my travels through Thailand, the lament is echoed here.

Talk to anyone here recruiting young folks, and they consider millennials a risky prospect. They're are easily bored. Attracting and retaining them is hard. They're difficult to keep engaged.

Thailand is an established Asian powerhouse that claims to have 0.07 percent unemployment. It's in the middle of a transition from manufacturing to design and, from what I can see, experiencing unprecedented prosperity, despite huge environmental and political challenges. When I arrived in Bangkok, I expected swarms of autorickshaws like you see in Bangalore; instead I saw fleets of Mercedes, as in Sao Paulo.

Listen to Thai technology leaders, and you'll hear the the same complaints about millennials you hear in the United States. Apinetr Unakul, president of TESA (Thai Embedded Systems Association), said it's a misconception that there aren't enough engineers in Thailand. "They just don't want to work in a factory," he said. Replace "factory" with "cubicle" and you get a similar story on the software side.

The Internet changed everything

I find it interesting that millennials in Thailand seem to identify more with their generation than with their culture. Anyone recruiting young tech workers in any American city could relate similar experiences with youthful recalcitrance.

When I asked Unakul about this, he said: "They grew up with the Internet and the Internet changed everything."  He also talked about the concept of the "new rich" -- where people worked to gain experience -- but work to live rather than live to work. At a certain point they take their cash and travel. (I'm not certain he was referring directly to Tim FerrissDavid Moore, or any of the folks in the "quit your job" movement.)

Tech guys in the older generation didn't land in a cubicle, the cubicle landed on them. Nonetheless, they were invested and vested, and they thought they had a job for life with a pension. Many were disabused of the latter notions in the early '90s.

When I came onto the scene in the latter '90s, I found an "Office Space"-like environment with relatively arbitrary top-down rules and relatively little meaning in what I did. At times I found particular tasks interesting -- like writing a crazy query that did several outer joins and unions to figure out how many products were returned (and to explain how many false positives the query may have returned due to the shoddy data). I switched jobs every six to 12 months to give myself a change of scenery, the chance to learn something new, and the opportunity to earn another $5 to $10 an hour.

Being loyal to a company didn't occur to me. I mean, they irradiated me with fluorescent lights 40 hours per week and stuck me in a cubicle, dreading the thought of another interminable conference call. At any moment they might randomly lay off an entire department. Why would I be loyal to that?

I got my real education when the dot-com boom went bust and the job market became a buyer's instead of a seller's market. Had it not been for the growth of the open source market and a freak decision to go into that at the right time, I'd have been out of luck. But what if I'd never experienced that reality check?

Consider the younger generation today. They think 2009 was a real recession for the tech industry. I mean, there were six months when we couldn't just get any job we wanted, but had to hang on even if we didn't like our jobs. That was tough!

Yet as the economy recovered, few companies around the world upgraded their work environments to make them the kinds of places where people want to work. Now they complain they have trouble recruiting and retaining. Simply throwing money at the problem doesn't solve the problem.

Perks are not enough

In Thailand, David Williams of Thompson Reuters said that his company is "relatively okay" at recruiting recent college graduates who speak English. But he has trouble recruiting experienced IT people, because IT is so new, and experienced folks are less likely to have English skills. "Education is growing here and producing people, but taking time to catch up with the market." You could say that about the United States, too.

But in Thailand, Reuters excels in one area in particular: recruiting women. A healthy 38 percent of staff and 45 percent of management are female. How did Reuters accomplish that?

It starts with the basics: a clean work environment at a stable company with good pay and good benefits. Also, according to Williams, the nature of the work helps: "cool, interesting new things, and an interesting egalitarian culture."

Reuters also has exercise and yoga, a mother's room, a multifaith prayer room, a central location, corporate responsibility, and a substantial investment in staff development. Combine this with the fact that Reuters is a large international company offering opportunities to work abroad, and it doesn't have a big problem recruiting -- the younger generation in Thailand likes to work overseas, at least for a little while.

Another company, Soft Square, has been partnering with local universities since the 1980s, delegating projects to students and mentoring them. It's also built training centers in less developed areas of Thailand and is working to hire and mentor in those areas. Part of this is for business reasons, and part is a social and patriotic mission to build Thailand's talent base.

Soft Square combines this mission with personal development and the offer of equity in the company and its spin-offs. The company recruits younger and earlier, and it participates in the community. It has discovered that many university graduates lack the knowledge they need -- so Soft Square created an extensive staff development program in everything from business ethics to Java and Spring.

Build cool stuff -- like robots

I also spoke with Chalermpon Punnotok from CT Asia. The company has little problem recruiting because, for one thing, it built a really cool robot! The second reason, Punnotok said, was that "we have culture -- we have DNA that people know in the market. We build crazy things like a robot, so they come. We don’t need so many [developers]. We’re not like a Bangalore outsourcing company where they need lots of developers. We just need a few good ones."

There are many views on the next generation and a variety of management approaches. The bottom line is that mass hiring for the cubicle farm to work on outdated technology doesn't work anymore. The challenges are generational and global. Young developers are in the driver's seat -- and want both flexibility and opportunity, not just in the United States and Europe, but in Thailand and around the world. They grew up with the Internet and the Internet changed everything.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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