I spent yesterday afternoon at a fascinating event hosted by software development company Softwire, exploring issues of attracting and retaining young technology talent. Panelists Bill Thompson from the BBC, Softwire’s CEO Zoe Cunningham and employer brand specialist Daria Taylor explored a number of themes. But by the end of the session I think I’ve concluded that framing this as an issue of “millennials” runs risk of compounding three significant (and different) issues: firstly the challenges of attracting technology talent in an over-hyped market; secondly, the challenges of addressing different and changing motivations of people over the course of their careers; and finally, how increasing access to and expertise in software is making work and careers much less predictable than in times past.
I for some time have been of the view that the tech market is over-hyped, particularly in London. In a time in which there has been historically low returns on many types of investment for a sustained period, people looking to make significant returns are turning to more speculative markets. Tech startups and housing look to be two of those in London at the moment. Far be it for me to shout bubble, but the whiff of tulips has been hanging over the heads of the good people of Shoreditch for some time.
In that type of market where money is fairly easy to come by, the risk tolerance needed for technologist to enter the startup world is lowered. That in turn makes it harder and harder for non-startups to establish and maintain technology teams, both fiscally but also more significantly from a job-fulfillingness perspective. If you take the three pillars of job satisfaction, autonomy, mastery and purpose, far easier to find those often in a smaller, newer organisation than a behemoth.
The second strand that was talked about in the session yesterday was of how those new into the job market are less motivated by money, more idealistic, and less willing to put up with the shit of work. Put that last point aside for a moment, and I’d argue that has always been the case. In fact, I’d go further to say that my generation (the last to come out of higher education without significant debt) were more idealistic than the current cohort entering work; we could afford to be, and they increasingly can’t. But putting aside “my generation is better than yours” bragging that happens when you reach a certain age, there is a more important factor at play here: different generations have different needs from work, but are probably motivated by the same things.
With young children, I’ve got less flexibility in terms of ability to sacrifice income than in at any time in my life. Ironically, it’s also the time when I’ve decided to hang it all and try to build my own business. There’s no paradox here: my network, my knowledge and my expertise are as good as they ever have been (and arguably are probably about to peak). Whilst I can’t afford the time or money to spend 20-hour shifts coding an app for fame and fortune, I have been able to build up a pretty strong revenue stream pretty quickly. As I get later in life my needs will change again – I have no idea as to what or how – but my naturing of working will change as a result.
For those new into the work market, whilst they might have fresh knowledge imbibed at university, they won’t have world experience. Now sometimes that is actually an advantage – a fresh pair of eyes. But most of the time that’s not what employers are looking for. And the stuff that is required is gained over time, not through reading or sitting in a training course. Both employees and employers need to acknowledge and plan for that.
So the final thread here is how technology and access to technology is changing our ways of working. At about the time of my graduation, one of my former employers was setting up a consulting business. He needed space, staff, resources… and about half a million pounds of investment to get up and running. When I established stamp back in 2013 I reckon it cost me less than £500. Commodity and consumer technology are reducing the barriers to setting up in business to a point where it’s almost free. There is risk and time involved, but not capital. And that’s why all of us have far more options available to the alternative of “putting up with the shit”. Millennials might have the technology expertise more at tap (although I’d count myself as a Digital Native, despite being nearly 30 at the time of the change in millennium). But the same tools at their disposal are also available to all of the rest of us. And that’s the bit that employers really need to wake up to. They, less than ever before, aren’t the only source of meaningful, gainful employment.