What millennials really want in the workplace

Different surveys have widely varying opinions on the millennial generation -- those between the ages of 18 and 30 who are entering or already in the workforce. Some imply this is a group of slackers living in their parents' basements. Others show them as ambitious, hardworking and struggling to pay off college debt with several part-time jobs.

How do they see themselves? A new report from the blog Squared Away shows a lot of "youthful optimism" among this generation. But is it justified? "The changing job market is making it increasingly difficult for young adults to get their careers off to the right start," said Kim Blanton, writer and editor for Squared Away at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

That's because the employment landscape is changing. Millennials are often accused of changing jobs just to earn more money. But that may not be their choice, said Blanton, citing a recent Federal Reserve survey showing that young adults prefer jobs that are "permanent and steady," not ones like driving for Uber or freelancing, which aren't secure and could change from month to month even when they make more money. 

Surprisingly and contrary to popular belief that millennials jump jobs for money, they actually "prefer steady employment to higher pay," according to the Fed survey.

Sometimes higher pay isn't even an option. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the fastest-growing jobs are often part-time, low-paying and seasonal, and lack health benefits, retirement savings accounts and paid-time off.

The BLS report found that the top 10 careers expected to generate 5 million jobs by 2024 include personal care and home health aides; food preparation, cooks and servers; nursing assistants; and retail sales, which net annual earnings below $30,000 -- or just over a living wage for a family of four in most areas. 

Slightly above that level were customer service representatives and construction workers, with salaries between $30,000 and $40,000 per year. Registered nurses and operations managers were found to earn more than $60,000 annually.

According to the Fed, a college degree -- with its staggering debt averaging $37,000 in 2016 -- doesn't guarantee a career. Only 45 percent of millennials reported obtaining employment in their field.

So is it time to reorient job training in this new world of employment? "A bright spot is the so-called STEM jobs, in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields," said Blanton. "Two-thirds of young adults who studied in these areas are getting jobs in these fields, which experienced the highest earnings in the BLS's fastest growing occupations." In contrast, the success rate was less for graduates in the life sciences, business, health and behavioral science fields.

Another viable choice: Don't attend college. Young adults with noncollege certificates and technical degrees had an easier time getting jobs in their fields than those with associates' and only slightly more trouble than those with bachelors' degrees.

Perhaps millennials are more hopeful now because they were so-down-in the-mouth during the Great Recession and the years shortly afterwards. In 2013, less than half were optimistic about future employment opportunities, and only 64 percent said they were able to cover their monthly expenses.

By 2015 those numbers had risen to 61 percent who were hopeful and 73 percent who were able to crack the monthly nut. But, of course, that still left more than a quarter who were sheltering with their parents, or nearly broke.

What about 2017? The May jobs report showed a 16-year low unemployment rate of 4.3 percent but also a slow-growing economy, said Director Michael Hicks of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. So perhaps it's time for yet another millennial survey. 

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.