About a month ago, I met with a financial advisor. No, it wasn’t just for kicks. It was part of my semi-annual, financial gut-check ritual. As the suit poured over facts and figures, my mind drifted—until I heard him utter a startling fact.

While discussing my retirement options, he mentioned, just as a side note, that employees today only spend an average of four years at a company. That’s an average, folks, not an anomaly. How things have changed!

Boomers (now ages 44 to 62) entered the workforce at a time when every employee looked forward to the proverbial gold watch at the end of a 25-year term. Today’s material handling managers and supervisors expect the same loyalty from their workers.

Unfortunately, those expectations don’t match reality anymore. Boomer supervisors cringe at the thought of a person spending four short years with a company. They lament the loss of the good old days, while watching employees come and go. Nothing changes. Nothing improves.

Reality is not good or bad. It just is. We all have two options: Either accept what is true and adjust or cling to a defunct past. In our personal lives, the choice is truly ours.

When it comes to business operations, though, it’s a little different. If supervisors don’t face the facts of the modern workforce and change their management style to adapt, results can be devastating.

Inflexibility on the part of managers can critically wound material handling operations. Too much time, energy and money is spent on recruiting and retraining workers. Productivity is lost. Materials stop flowing. Demand is unfulfilled. Customers get angry. The cycle continues.

Why is this happening, and what can we do about it? Cam Marston, founder and president of management consulting firm Generational Insight (Mobile, Ala.), thinks he has an answer. He says that, for the first time in history, four distinct generations are working side by side. There are the Matures (born between 1909 and 1945), the Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), the Xers (born between 1965 and 1978) and, finally, the Millennials (born between 1979 and 1988).

On May 4, Cam will be hosting a management workshop on this very topic during the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC) Annual Conference in Chicago.

Cam explains that “each generation shares common experiences during formative years. These events…shape attitudes on a larger scale. They create a group identity that influences individual behavior and value systems.”

While Matures and Boomers value seniority and loyalty to the Company with a capital ‘C,’ Xers demand respect and honest communication, regardless of job tenure, Cam says. He’s quick to note that Xers can still be very loyal workers, as long as they work for a good boss. Members of this generation stay attached to—or leave—bosses, not companies.

Like Xers, Millennials also value honest communication. However, these employees need more positive reinforcement than Xers. And, Millennials want workplace mentors who will help them achieve personal fulfillment on the job.

At the heart of all this talk about different generations is a lesson about how to retain good employees. As evidenced by the short tenure of today’s workers, retention strategies that worked yesterday—like the gold watch— clearly aren’t working today.

Cam’s research suggests that younger generations want personal fulfillment and growth opportunities, and they will keep leaving bosses until they find them. Preparing employees for bigger and better tasks—called succession planning—is where material handling managers should focus their efforts.

I predict the best material handling managers in this New Year will be part of the solution, not the statistic.

Mary Aichlmayr
Senior Editor
maichlmayr@MHMonline.com