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With nearly 2.5 million fans on Facebook, 48,000 followers on Twitter and a prolific output of videos on YouTube, the mobile telecoms group Nokia is a company that seems to know what makes Generation Y tick.

But the world’s largest maker of mobile phones doesn’t just use social media to promote its products. Sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are an important recruiting tool and a way for Nokia to identify its future employees. It has a Facebook group called Future Talent at Nokia (‘liked’ by 5,764 people) where recruiters answer questions about working at the company, post information about job and internship opportunities and provide interview tips.

“We want to have a conversation with them,” says Matthew Hanwell, HR director, communities and social media at Nokia. “It’s not the usual post-and-pray approach to recruitment. This is much more about developing and evolving a relationship with people that ultimately could become an employment relationship.”

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Nokia’s easy rapport with Generation Y — the brand-conscious, technologically-savvy and highly-networked generation of workers born in or after 1980 — is no accident. Since they entered the workforce, Nokia, which defines Generation Y as those born between 1978 and 2000, has paid more and more attention to them, says Hanwell. It has tried not only to understand what makes them different but also how they will shape their workplaces. Already, they make up between 30 and 40 per cent of Nokia’s global workforce if factory workers are included and the average age of the Finnish company’s employees is just under 33 years.

“Over the last few years we have taken this topic very seriously and we have been actively researching and participating in research around Generation Y,” Hanwell says. “They are the future of the workforce of every company.”

New world order

Nokia is not the only company trying to get inside the heads of its youngest employees. talentsmoothie, a London-based organisational development consultancy, runs seminars on understanding and managing Generation Y, which are popular with many sectors, including the financial services, legal and financial sectors.

Sally Bibb, talentsmoothie’s co-founder and director, says she is often asked whether Generation Y is really that different from other generations and whether they won’t just “become like Generation X or baby boomers when they reach 40?

“The answer to that is no,” says Bibb, who is also the author of Generation Y for Rookies: From Rookie to Expert in a Week. “The reason is they’ve grown up in a completely different world. They’ve been brought up in a world with the internet. They’re natives, whereas the rest of us are immigrants so we have to translate our experience into the online world.”

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The other reason why Generation Y is different is because of the liberalisation of parenting and education, Bibb adds. From childhood they have been asked to participate in decision-making, whether at school or at home. This means there are distinct differences in how they learn and how they like to be managed. While older employees tend to see the world as a hierarchy, their younger colleagues think of it as a social network and are not afraid to challenge authority, says Bibb. She advises clients to involve younger workers in decisions, take the time to explain why things are done and give regular feedback.

“Generation Y love feedback because they really want to learn and they really want to get better at what they do, whereas the older generations tend to think of feedback as a negative thing,” she says.

Jamie Lyon, head of employer services at the ACCA, says CFOs managing young finance teams need to explain what career development opportunities are available.

Engaging but demanding

According to a report on young finance professionals published by ACCA and Mercer in August, the top five factors that attract Generation Y finance talent to employers are career development, remuneration, the nature of the role, job security and work-life balance.

Lyon, co-author of the report, entitled Generation Y: Realising the Potential, says the youngest generation in finance want a career that is interesting and engaging.

“They may look at other generations in the workplace and think ‘I want to make sure that the job I do really interests me. I’m probably going to be doing it for a long time,'” he says. “As a consequence, they’re looking at organisations and asking ‘what are the career development opportunities you can give me?'”

The report, in which more than 3,200 people from 122 countries were surveyed, also found that while many young finance professionals are happy to embark on a career in finance, over half of them want a career path outside traditional finance roles. This aspiration, combined with the fact that they are eager to progress quickly in their careers and confident about moving elsewhere if their expectations aren’t met, makes them a challenging generation to manage, says Lyon.

The survey suggests that companies may need to develop new approaches if they want to retain their young workers. One third of respondents said they wanted to leave their company at the present time, while half said they did not expect to be with their current employer in three years’ time. Lyon says the key to retaining the best Generation Y talent, especially as the economy improves, is providing challenging work, having “honest career conversations” and giving them opportunities to move around the business.

“In terms of developing future finance leaders in the organisation, it’s making sure they have got a really strong technical grounding, giving them the breadth of exposure around the business, proactively setting up secondment opportunities or opportunities to rotate around the business,” he says.

It’s their world now

Matthew Hanwell at Nokia encourages CFOs to follow his company’s example by having an open culture and engaging with their team. Nokia tries to create a “Generation Y-friendly environment,” he says, supporting things like flexible working and using social media tools within the company that allow employees to engage with senior executives.

“Our CEO doesn’t have an office,” Hanwell says. “He also participates in the social media platforms that we have. Anyone in this company can have a conversation with the CEO. They can write to him on the social media forums. He responds to them personally.”

In 2008, the company also ran a reverse mentoring programme in its services unit, in which young engineers were paired with senior management and coached them on how to use social media. Hanwell says the programme is just one example of how Generation Y employees are contributing to Nokia.

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“I think that’s a very fulfilling thing for a young person,” he says. “It also gives an exposure to the company and how things work.”

In the UK, the recession and persistent youth unemployment have dented some of the confidence of Generation Y. Many young people, especially recent graduates, face an uncertain future, says Sue Honore, an associate consultant at Ashridge Business School who co-authored a report into Generation Y last year.

“Before the recession, a large number of Generation Y were seen as arrogant,” she says. “With the recession, they’re finding it’s much harder to get a job and you need to sell yourself. Many of them are now struggling and may not get a job for many years.”

However, Chris McCarthy, director of the recruitment agency Hays Senior Finance, says although many employers had to stop their graduate recruitment, university milk rounds have started again and companies still see the value of Generation Y for the new ideas they bring. He also points out that graduates who have gone on to become qualified accountants have been in high demand recently.

“Within the employment landscape, finance has been the best place to be over the last two years,” he says. “If you’re going to survive the recession you need a very good finance function.”

Bibb says employers do want to hold on to their young talent and her clients have told her they will not be cutting back on their training and development budgets. She says given Generation Y’s propensity to change jobs in order to further their careers, companies are aware that failing to invest in them now could lead to an exodus later.

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