"Generation Next" and Facilities Maintenance

We have all heard, probably to the point of fatigued, about“Gen X.” This generation follows in the self-occupied footsteps of the baby boomers and people like me, who were“pre-boomer war babies.” Currently, there is more buzzing about today’s newest and allegedly unique generation, Generation Next. This term loosely refers to the “Gen Y” crop of kids. Although I may not be clear what the “next” refers to, I can only assume that wiser folks (as we think we are) will end up saying and sighing, “ohmygosh, what could possibly be next.”

This generation of individuals, currently leaving their teens, appears to behave in a way that we deem unique and improvident. Let us be candid, though. We cannot hold them fully responsible for their “uniqueness.” After all, we are the ones who created and raised them and nurtured their apparent lack of traditional cerebration. We placed them in front of television sets and video games, inadvertently teaching them that to be alone is okay and that instant gratification is not only achievable, it is a right. We taught them that being clever is its own reward because the clever person is in control of his/her environment, successes, and failures. We invented, and encouraged the invention and marketing of, devices that made this generation comfortable being and acting alone and selfish, even while in a crowd. We glued phones and headsets to their ears and tiny keyboards to their fingers. They communicate more comfortably through electronics and the Internet than they do face to face. A recent column in the New York Times even referred to this group as “Gen Q,” since they are often so quiet and lack the desire to become “involved.” It is somewhat sobering to realize that this is the nascent generation of workers that we must entice into our business model and motivate to do the work we used to do.

Is that necessarily bad or good for our industry? Probably neither, by itself. It all depends on how we, as leaders, prepare ourselves. (As we do so, we need to remain cognizant of the reality that there will still be a number of potential employees who fall more in line with our “traditional” model.)

Fortunately, the nature of our business is also in a perpetual state of metamorphosis. Digital technology, wireless communications, environmental control systems and sophisticated air quality monitoring systems, as well as security and emergency mass-communication systems, are all examples of technologies that are barely the same age, or less, as many of the individuals that we are looking to entice into our workplace. We have high-tech classrooms that intimidate entrenched faculty and staff members. We have energy management and control systems that mandate a college degree. There are, without a doubt, numerous opportunities that can we can use to stimulate these “gen-nexers” into being interested in one of the many career slots that either already exist or that we need to create.

The bigger challenge could more likely reside in how we motivate, reward, recognize, and retain this newest generation. It is not that they do not have a work ethic — they simply define it in different terms. Many of these individuals look at working for the same employer for a lifetime as boring and frightening, and perhaps even an indication of failure. They may not think of loyalty in terms of blindly showing up for work on time for 40 years. For many, it may mean “giving it all you’ve got” for only a few years and then moving on to new challenges.

They may prefer to work alone, rather than as part of a larger group or team. They may not be interested in “grouping up” in professional associations. Many will want to work with “i” devices attached to their ears and will resent being told that such behavior is not acceptable. They will want to understand “why” things are done in a certain way and will readily test existing policies and procedures. They will be more likely to challenge the boss’ acclaimed wisdom.

There is no reason to become overwhelmed by a phobia of this new breed. In fact, we should anticipate some exciting times. Imagine the great opportunities that will spontaneously arise, providing an environment conducive to change, inviting new challenges, begging for new technologies. Contrast this with the “feet stuck in the mud” environment many of us have experienced to-date, constantly battling a bunch of tight-lipped traditionalists hung up on working with bailing wire, a hammer, a roll of duct tape, and an attitude of “good enough for government work…”

Sounds so good, I may even consider coming out of retirement!

Pete van der Have has recently retired as the assistant vice president for Plant Operations at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is working as an independent consultant. He can be reached at [email protected]