Life Among the Digital Natives: Why HR Professionals Should Actively Support School District Industry Boards
Several months ago, I agreed to speak and participate in a panel discussion at the January 25th SHRM-LI meeting. The topic was High School Industry Advisory Boards. As volunteer co-chair of the Smithtown IAB I was supposed to address the reasons why HR professionals should consider actively participating in one of these organizations. Unfortunately, a bout with bronchitis prevented me from attending the meeting, but I did send an email outlining my thoughts to the program moderator, Sue Gubing, who would be speaking in my stead. She chose to read the email verbatim during the meeting, and it apparently struck a responsive chord with many of the attendees. I was asked to expand upon my key premise, the result being this blog.
I’m sure it was assumed that I would present the standard and widely accepted inducements for participation: mentoring young people, contributing to curriculum reform as it relates to career development, and generally helping to prepare today’s youth for a future in the workplace. Indeed, those were pretty much the motivators that inspired me to join the Smithtown IAB nearly 20 years ago. In recent years, however, I have come to realize that a subtle but important change has occurred. Regardless of industry or professional discipline, we have as much to learn from the students as they have to learn from us.
If you have not encountered the term “digital natives” yet, you soon will. In my own area of expertise–marketing and advertising–we spend a good deal of time identifying population segments and trends. In the last few years digital natives has emerged as a significant new population segment. Born during the last quarter century, these individuals have never experienced a world without digital technology. As a group, they differ from earlier generations across a wide range of attitudes and behaviors. They are markedly different in the choices they make regarding such things as entertainment, privacy, networking, and personal space. Their nearly organic relationship with digital technology makes them less subject to the limitations of time and geography. They are both achievement driven and highly competitive.
As much as we need to help prepare these young people for the workplace, we also need to prepare the workplace for them. In terms of basic skills, the digital natives are already better prepared than any preceding generation to exist and succeed in the workplace that will evolve over the next five to ten years. They have no problem multitasking on mobile devices (which may indeed become the workplace in the near future). They are adept at solving problems through the use of social networks, and have a visceral understanding of how digital technology is changing the nature of communication.
Here is an example from my own industry. Just last week I read an online article addressing the issue of whether or not social media pros should be paid overtime for tweeting after work hours. It also raised the question of what actually constitutes “work hours” in the social media arena. Four years ago there were no social media pros; today they can score top starting salaries. And when we hire them we don’t even look at anyone over 25 years old.
Every industry will be affected by this evolution, but none more than HR. I’ll bet that in the last 12 months most HR specialists have had to write a job description for a position they weren’t sure they completely understood–with a set of job skills no one in the company could clearly define. This kind of thing will increase asymptotically over the coming years.
What will it take to motivate and train these digital natives? What kind of working conditions will be needed to maximize their productivity? What kind of work schedules will mesh with their time-independent, 24/7 lifestyles? And remember, as they become more of the workforce, they also become more and more of the market. How does the HR professional learn and grow as this new workforce emerges?
Go back to school.
Become involved with the local IAB, either in the community where you live or near your place of business. Do all you can to help it to grow and expand. Work with the kids. Get to know what motivates them and the things they find important. Learn and understand how they live in their mobile world. Trust me, there’s no better way to avoid feeling that you’re a dinosaur by the time you’re in your 50s than spending time with those less than half your age. Smart HR professionals will realize that in the very near future these will be the people they will be hiring, based on job skills none of us yet know about. It’s fine to keep up with change through professional journals, but nothing beats first-hand experience.
Insight is the result of involvement and a long-term commitment. Expecting to develop understanding by attending a few sessions is like expecting to understand Italy on the basis of a two-week guided bus tour. The benefits, however, are profound in terms of relating a new generation that is busy defining its own future. Remember this: When it comes to the digital world of tomorrow, they are the natives and we are the aliens.
Executive Vice President & Founder