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Millennials Don't Want to Climb the Traditional Ladder

Companies are helping young employees find multiple career paths

Shutterstock/ILYA AKINSHIN

Sponsored by Credit Suisse

The sequence of a career used to be so simple.

For most of the twentieth century, the defining feature was stability. An employee could work in the same industry throughout his entire adult life, often in the same company and sometimes even in the same department. There were recognizable milestones on the course toward retirement: From cubicle to corner office to executive suite, workers moved along a simple continuum of experience and rewards. Everyone advanced as far as they could along the same path, or up the same ladder—pick your metaphor, but the direction to the gold watch was always a straight line.

Well, so much for stability. Fresh entrants to the workforce now expect a winding, unpredictable progression of jobs in a variety of separate fields. The economic forces that led so many of their predecessors to see themselves as “company men” (or women) hold far less sway over new hires. Organizations and their employees are entering an age of work atomization, one in which jobs become more numerous and more distinct, even within the same company.  Managing this adjustment effectively can prove an enormous boon to employee retention and organizational performance.

“In the course of a career, you’re going to have many more episodes of work, as opposed to one long job,” says Will Wolf, the Global Head of Talent Acquisition & Development at Credit Suisse. Wolf has spent three years studying the changing shape of careers and installing practices at Credit Suisse that will allow the company to take advantage of it.

An assortment of structural factors have contributed to the shift—the profit-driven pressure to deploy off-shore and/or outsource low-skilled jobs, the growing prominence of employment agencies that allow companies to pick up or shed staff whenever necessary, career information and job-clearinghouse technology platforms like LinkedIn, and even the Affordable Care Act, which decouples insurance plans from the workplace and frees restless workers who would otherwise have been bound to their employers by the necessity of their health benefits. All of these factors result in a world in which flexibility, not continuity, is paramount. Other labor dispatching technologies and platforms are emerging that only promise more change in the direction of job atomization. The rise of new technology platforms like Uber and Homejoy has combined to make labor both more plentiful for organizations and more accessible to potential job seekers. For instance, an aspiring cabbie once had to pass byzantine hackney exams and lay out a fortune in licensure costs before he could collect his first passenger. An Uber driver only needs to pass a DMV test and own a smartphone. With these trends in place, it isn’t hard to imagine a world where work and workers are more independent and entrepreneurial.

Well-adapted companies can thrive in that world, Wolf explains. “We know that career and job mobility is what people are looking for. Our analysis shows that the people who’ve taken multiple jobs over time at Credit Suisse tend to stay and perform well.” In order to keep them that way, Credit Suisse has established Internals First, a company-wide placement effort that encourages existing employees to make job or career changes within the bank. Rather than lose valued professionals to other firms—and pay the millions in turnover costs that inevitably result—Credit Suisse recruiters identify qualified candidates and redeploy them into new roles through Internals First.

Internals First is one initiative supporting a distinct concept of career advancement at Credit Suisse. “The nature of work is changing, and the social contract is changing,” Wolf says. “We’re defining career support and growth in a different way. We say, ‘As an employee you have a portfolio of experience, and we’re the company that helps you enrich that portfolio.’” The components of a career portfolio are formal education, on-the-job experience, and networks, and each can be meticulously enhanced during an employee’s time with the company. Top managing directors, for instance, are selected for intensive portfolio-enhancing  program. One such program—the Talent Agency—teams top performers five or six at a time to tackle complex projects even while it assists them in cultivating professional networks. Other initiatives offer skill-building classes and executive coaching.

This kind of proactive approach is exactly what’s necessary to not only retain talent, but also to profit from its more efficient application. Regardless of the broader developments that have accelerated churn and shortened job tenures, a huge swath of the working-age population has simply gotten used to the idea of fewer guarantees: They anticipate a steady stream of new challenges and are increasingly intolerant of feeling stymied at their jobs. According to a 2012 study conducted by Future Workplace, over 90 percent of the Millennials now flooding America’s lower occupational ranks expect to leave their jobs within three years. The benefit of all this increased mobility can be detected in workers’ higher sense of fulfillment and fresh perspective. On the other hand, employees who are not presented with choices on the job—to experiment in another department, say, or form a new team—will eventually choose to leave.

Young women are the most likely cohort to make that decision, frequently by opting out of the workforce altogether. The choice to quit or move to part time in order to raise a family can limit their options and deprive their employers of blossoming talent. “Every institution struggles to keep women tracking into senior management. Banks tend to struggle with this especially,” Wolf says. To address the problem, Credit Suisse has instituted its Real Returns program. Soliciting resumes from qualified women who have taken extended time off from professional life, the company extends ten-week “returnships” to gauge their skills and entice them back into the office. The program has been an unqualified success, placing its accepted applicants in roles in New York and London. The company aims to permanently retain 70 percent of Real Returns graduates.

In all its strategies, Credit Suisse intends to optimize the value of its human capital by allowing it more room to develop on its own.  Wolf explains, “We’ve observed some things about the changing nature of the workforce. We’re restructuring our deliveries, the way we grow and develop people here, to play to that reality. It’s not a journey, it’s not a ladder, it’s not a staircase.”