By Sim Yi Shien
Yi Shien is a rising senior at Yale-NUS College, interning at Skillseed for the summer as a Project Management and Outreach Intern. As an Anthropology major, she’s big on participant observation, which really is a fancy way of saying “spends lot of time people-watching and hanging out with strangers for the sake of academia.” She likes writing, taking photographs and hunting for snacks. She is also 100% a millennial.
Millennial employees often get a bad rep in the news – we don’t want to work, we are a pain to manage, and we can’t even show up for an interview prepared. It’s a wonder that any employer ever goes through the trouble of hiring someone from Generation Y. However, Huijia, the founder of Skillseed, has a different perspective. After engaging with youth for more than a decade as both a colleague and mentor, Hujia is a huge advocate for working with and collaborating with young people – and she’s not afraid to let people know it. Case in point: I posed a casual question about whether she liked working with a young team, which led to a 30 minute conversation about how working with young people can be - gasp - surprisingly rewarding. Read on for some of her thoughts on the millennial workforce, and some tips on how best to unleash their potential in the office!
1. They are a lot more talented than people might think
Millenials are often portrayed as the epitome of incompetence and cluelessness, but Huijia finds that they are often, in fact, multi-talented - even if these talents may go unnoticed at first. “Our team has so many different strengths,” she shares. “We usually hire for specific functions at Skillseed - right now, for instance, we have Xiyao on board to help with our China development work, but it turns out that she also has hardcore design skills, which we only realised when we roped her in to help with The Adventurous Fellowship. Maybe it’s because I have no talent in art, but I just think that youth these days come with all these additional skills, which we don’t expect but are pleasantly surprised with.”
Huijia surmises that students today may need all these skills in order to survive in group projects (a painfully accurate assessment, in my opinion), which is why things like knowing how to use Photoshop or how to organize an itinerary are simply par for the course. This could also be the result of an increasingly broad-based and interdisciplinary educational system, where students find themselves mastering a variety of skills, rather than excelling at one singular activity. She notes, “Sometimes, we don’t know of these skills until we happen to mysteriously discover them one day, because young employees don’t necessarily reveal them upfront. But the point is that there’s just so much more talent than there used to be.”
2. They know how to ask good questions
The propensity of young adults to question everything is usually attributed to their overwhelming sense of entitlement or their lack of respect for authority. However, according to Huijia, the ability of young people to ask questions can be an asset, rather than an inconvenience. “One thing I really appreciate about working with youth is that they come with lots of interesting perspectives and they are willing to challenge the status quo,” Huijia says. “Oldies like us - we often believe that things can only be done one way because we’ve been doing it like that for a long time. Sometimes we’re right, because we have the experience to back our decision up, but sometimes it’s great to have new people come in, ask questions and transform how we do things.”
Far from seeing the millennial’s lack of experience as a hindrance, Huijia sees it as an opportunity to bring in fresh perspectives. It can be tiring to explain the rationale behind office norms or company procedures, but it’s also a process that can bring about renewed clarity. “You gain a renewed understanding of why you’re doing things a certain way when you have to explain your thought process to someone else,” Huijia explains. “There’s also a sense of validation, when both parties agree, and truly believe that this particular method is the best way to go.”
She continues: “At Skillseed, we’ve been privileged and honoured to have young people who aren’t afraid to challenge us critically, albeit politely." Huijia attributes the success of Skillseed to the team’s ability to accept and integrate different people’s perspectives. “I think we have been able to flourish because we learn to grow in different dimensions, and that results in projects that are more holistic too.”
3. They have so much energy and potential that is just waiting to be unleashed
Millennials can tap into a reservoir of boundless energy - a valuable asset as long as they are armed with the right tools and the right purpose (see: college students pulling an all-nighter to make sure that a campus-wide event runs smoothly). “Companies should never underestimate the amount of energy that young people have! But they also shouldn’t expect young people to do everything just because they can,” Huijia cautions. “It’s not that young people shouldn’t be assigned mundane tasks, but companies should put in the effort to meet them halfway, and assign them responsibilities that are aligned with their values, talents, and interests.” In order to capitalise on the talents and energies of their young workers, companies have to help them find purpose in the work that they do. Once the company succeeds, their young employees will be unstoppable. According to Huijia, “they won’t need to sleep, they can totally push forward, completing projects way faster that you could have imagined.”
With these ideas in mind, how then, should companies best manage their millennial workforce? Huijia offers three secrets for working with members of the Strawberry Generation:
1. Empower them (for real)
“Empowerment is such a buzz word, but it’s very important to what we do,” Huijia stresses. At Skillseed, Huijia explains that empowerment means getting to know your staff and who they are as people - this usually involves a careful review of resumes of cover letters, and an in-depth interview process, which all team members go through, regardless of whether they are applying to be a summer intern or a full-time staff member. “We want to find out what matters to them, what their values are, why they want to work here. Sure, it takes a lot more time and energy, but transactional relationships rarely work out in the long run. Our mission is focused on youth development, and if we can’t nurture our team, how can we profess to help other organisations and schools do so?”
Kei, one of Skillseed’s Course Architects, says that she feels an unprecedented sense of autonomy in her job. “The directors have a sense of radical trust in us - they trust that we can start something and carry it through till the end, and that even if we might not know something now, that we can learn it quickly. They strike an impressive balance between providing mentorship and trusting us to be independent, - something I haven’t really experienced at any other job.” Liana, Skillseed’s Gap Year Intern, also explains how the social enterprise’s values resonate with her: “We’re really big on fairness, and there’s a certain level respect accorded to our community partners, or anyone that we work with. There’s also a kind of intellectual openness and acceptance of diversity that I really appreciate, and there’s always the possibility of working on something that you’re really invested in.”
“At the end of the day, when you’re looking to hire people, you should look to hire people who are better than you,” Huijia concludes. “One thing I would love to say is that we’re hiring for a new intern, because our previous intern became our CEO.”
2. Be prepared to be consultative - and for pushback
“Young people today have all these critical thinking skills, so can you imagine telling them, ‘You are going to do this, because you have to?’ They’re just not going to accept it,” Huijia says. If companies want their millennial workforce to be invested in the long run, answers like “just do it” and “this is what we’ve always been doing” are no longer sufficient. Bosses have to be more patient, and may have to set aside more time to explain their rationales. They should also be prepared to provide more feedback and mentorship. “At Skillseed, there’s a lot of emphasis on helping us figure out what we want to get out of our time here. We have regular check-ins about our goals and aspirations, and these help us track how we are growing professionally,” Kei shares.
That said, there still needs to be a captain at the head of the ship. As Huijia notes, “It’s good to get feedback and input, but bosses usually need to have the final word, and take responsibility for the company’s decision.”
3. Find ways to keep them awesome
Young people are often chastised for being too unprofessional, but Huijia believes that companies should do more to harness that youthful energy, instead of trying to kill it at every turn. “The office shouldn’t be a place where dreams come to die!” Huijia exclaims. “They can be young and professional at the same time.” Case in point: the Skillseed office resembles a cozy living room more than it does a conventional office, with its colourful posters, fairy lights and plethora of cushions. “We don’t even have a dress code, although we can all be professional when the need arises. But we love it when people wear costumes or whatever they feel comfortable in. At one point, we would regularly bring our dog, Cooki the corgi, to the office,” Huijia adds. “We want people to feel excited about coming into work.”
However, providing a conducive work environment goes beyond providing a comfortable physical space. “Do your young workers have a space where they can feel creative? Scribble ideas on a wall? Do they feel like they can suggest new options or projects?” Huijia asks. Millennials like freedom and flexibility, so allowing them to find their own space and time to work is crucial. At Skillseed, Thursdays are designated remote working days, and every team member is allowed to work from anywhere, as long as they remain contactable via online platforms. The office also implements a flexi-hour scheme, where people can come into work anytime between 8:30 - 10:30 am.
“At the end of the day, the company is its people,” Huijia concludes. “You want to create a space where people can fall in love with work, find purpose in what they are doing, and look forward seeing their colleagues every day. If you’ve hired the right people, they probably won’t take advantage of these perks. Ultimately, they will fight to make sure that this work culture and environment stays for good.”
4. Take an interest in their love lives
Finally, even though Huijia likes to offer tips in threes, she breaks her own rule in order to offer one last inimitable nugget of wisdom: “If you matchmake your young employees successfully, they will be indebted to you forever! Their firstborn basically belongs to you. It’s a great way to cultivate lifetime loyalty.”