Want to know how to encourage younger people to stay at your firm?Re-assess their supervisory relationships.

It may sound simplistic, but the lack of day-to-day management interaction is one of the major issues that younger, less experienced people face when entering a new working environment - i.e., supervisors or managers who are too hands-off.

"Typically, the young folks show up on Day One and say, 'Look at me, I'm here, remember me, from the interview!' and it's like, 'Oh right, we forgot you were starting today,'" said Bruce Tulgan, co-author of Managing the Generation Mix: From Urgency to Opportunity and founder of RainmakerThinking Inc., a New Haven, Conn.-based research and training firm that has been studying generational differences since 1993. "The old-fashioned, long-term hierarchical structure is a bad fit for today's transactional environment."

As staff retention continues to challenge many accounting firms, the numbers show it's not going to get any easier. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for accounting professionals is expected to grow by 18 to 26 percent through 2014. Meanwhile, January 2008 findings from the American Institute of CPAs reported that 75 percent of the organization's members would be eligible for retirement in the next 14 years.

As a result, more midsized firms are starting to address this issue by paying attention to what younger people need to stay engaged. Some are including younger staff members in more significant firm decisions through advisory boards; others are pairing younger staff with older partners in mentoring relationships; and some have even postponed accepting large proposals until there is an assurance that a particular department can handle the increase in hours and staff demands.

"Partners listen and make adjustments to schedules if people are struggling, so we are not pumping people through with all the hours," said Lori Colvin, marketing director at San Ramon, Calif.-based CPA firm Armanino McKenna. "We know we can't afford it, we can't lose people. If we have a proposal for $100,000 or more, it must be approved by the department head."

FIRST X, THEN Y

Not surprisingly, with the Baby Boomers leaving the workplace, it's the younger generations that are left to pick up the reins.

However, the younger generations - Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1977) and Generation Y (born between 1978 and 1990) - have a different way of doing things, and what's probably more threatening is that they have the upper hand in negotiations.

"For the first time, there are multiple generations at work where the younger generation has power," noted Penelope Trunk, the author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success and career columnist at the Boston Globe. "They have the balance of power because companies cannot hire enough young people to fill the positions they have open."

A common misconception that Baby Boomers have about Gen Yers is that they feel entitled, and don't want to "put their time in." Trunk, however, said that the opposite is true. "They have worked harder than any other generation in school," she said. "They've done more hours of homework, achieved higher rates of graduation and are much more productive than any other generation in history because they have great productivity skills. The young people's demand for personal growth at work is actually very similar to what Baby Boomers want."

Those Baby Boomers who are not ready to retire completely are also looking for flexibility in scheduling, more work/life balance, and an acknowledgement that their work is meaningful in some way.

Thalia Zetlin, principal and chief marketing officer at CPA and business advisory firm Berdon LLP, in New York, noted that many Gen Yers share the same concerns. "They don't want a life dominated by work, like their parents, so work/life balance and flexibility are major issues. They're more global in their thinking and want a broader perspective on their work. They expect to be treated fairly, with straight talk and directness."

Zetlin said that Berdon is targeting the "sixth-year person," or those from the ages of 26 to 43, to find out what it is they want and like in a workplace. The firm is currently including younger staff members in team meetings that address client issues and concerns, as well as providing lunchtime sessions that address soft skills and offer special niche service profiles.

The inter-generation gap is a brewing problem in accounting firms, confirmed Mark Koziel, senior technical manager for the American Institute of CPAs, who is working closely with a Madison, Wis.-based consulting firm called Next Generation Consulting to help draft tools and resources to address the ongoing concern.

"The firms that are finding greater success in the retention and attraction arena have identified it and are starting to do something about it," Koziel said, adding that 92 percent of 600 respondents in a 2004 staffing survey said that they didn't have a program in place to address inter-generational differences. "There are some firms that are fighting the change."

Rebecca Ryan of Next Generation Consulting sounded a clear warning: "I think to remain profitable at the level these firms have remained profitable at, they are going to have to innovate significantly and turn it from a time and money focus to [one of] innovation."

WHAT THEY'RE DOING

Armanino McKenna's Colvin said that her firm has addressed the challenge in a few ways. A staff advisory board, with elected members, was created earlier this year to communicate monthly with the managing partner and set up firm protocol. She added that the firm also has made obtaining the latest technology and redesigning the current training program priorities. "But [something like] business attire went around and around. The staff advisory board came in and said, 'It's really important to us that we wear jeans on Friday.' I know that's small, but it's important."

At Big Four firm Deloitte & Touche, where 65 percent of the firm's employees are under the age of 35, the multi-generational issue is very much a reality. As a result, the organization has introduced the concept of "mass career customization" to help foster greater loyalty and focus on creating a connection with employees and how they want their careers to unfold.

In 2006, a Deloitte webcast presented by Leah Reynolds, a specialist and national practice leader in Deloitte Consulting's generational change practice, and Stan Smith, a principal and national director for Deloitte Services Next Generation Initiatives, offered three practical steps for change.

Deloitte experts suggested determining a company's need for Generation Y talent over the next three to five years, taking note of the number of Baby Boomers retiring and the shortage of Generation Xers. Second, Deloitte said to assess your firm's environment in the context of what Generation Yers want: long-term career development, multiple experiences within a single company, flexibility, a sense of purpose, respect and open communication. Lastly, Reynolds and Smith suggested developing a generational change plan with senior partner buy-in within the firm.

"Our research shows that's what the younger generation is looking for," added Anne Weisberg, Deloitte's director of talent diversity and co-author of Mass Career Customization: Aligning the Workplace with Today's Nontraditional Workforce. "[Gen Yers] are looking for a place where they can stay and grow."

"The messaging from our readership is that you can't assume that the way you manage your career is going to work for generations behind you," added Weisberg. "So don't overlay your experiences on them and expect them to fall into the way you did things."

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