Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Workforce Challenges Spur Region-wide Discussions

By Chet Bodin, Greater Minnesota Rising


As the end of the 2015 nears, it’s important to revisit the trends that inspired Greater Minnesota Rising (GMR), and how our research evolved this year. Economically speaking, 2015 saw a return to unemployment reminiscent of the 1990’s and a record number of job vacancies. It’s likely that Baby Boomers will retire at an even faster pace in 2016, and Millennials will continue to fill the void.  What will be missed are the years of experience, vast connections, and leadership traits of the Baby Boomer generation. 
These assets, honed over decades, won't be easy to replace.  By numbers alone, it will be nearly impossible. So GMR set out to qualitatively rethink the environment in which regional industries, organizations, and communities will operate in and learn how they can adapt.  Specifically, we saw an opportunity to leverage the demographic shift.  Unlike previous generations, high demand for workers will increase the options for job seekers, making their work and life preferences of pivotal interest.  But the unprecedented generational shift will also challenge industry's ability to keep up with the times.  Not only will employers need to attract and retain a new workforce; the makeup of that workforce will largely determine a firm’s outlook, innovation, and cultural purview.  In other words, a worker's life experience in millennial (and even digital) culture may be as valuable as their years in the workforce.  The magnitude of Millennial influence in every facet of industry cannot be overstated, and employers need to take notice.
From this premise, our research evolved in some unexpected but necessary ways.  We originally proposed to learn more about young professionals in northwestern Minnesota, and how those in the millennial generation might incur leadership.  However, it quickly became clear that the leadership and engagement needed was not only of the millennial variety.  Through academic literature, focus groups, and interviews with local hiring managers and other stakeholders, we found there are many engaged and talented young professionals in the region... but attracting and retaining ‘emerging leaders’ was more comprehensive, qualitative, and appropriate to our study.
In summary, our research indicates that an emerging leader possesses leadership potential but is ‘untested’ or lacks the years of experience that a ‘seasoned’ veteran might have (Carucci, 2006). In addition, our focus groups highlighted several other key factors:
·         While many participants defined emerging leaders as being young or Millennials, a person of any age can be an emerging leader.
·         Emerging leaders have started to see success, but still have the potential and opportunity to grow.
·         An emerging leader could indicate someone who is emerging into a new field, rather than solely someone who is new to the workforce. 
Most notably, we learned that emerging leaders are more defined by their circumstances than their age.  The strong and persistent leadership exercised by Baby Boomers for decades has kept leaders from other generations on the sidelines more often than not, and they're prepared to play a significant role in the workforce transition.  This is good news for several reasons. Their workplace experience not only addresses the gap plaguing their younger colleagues, but Gen X leaders have knowledge of and connections among both Boomers and Millennials.  In other words, they’re in a position to demonstrate leadership that could transcend the (often negative) perceptions Millennials and Baby Boomers have of each other’s work habits, values, and approaches to technology.
West Central World Café
In mid-December, Greater Minnesota Rising (GMR) hosted a World Café session at West Central Initiative in Fergus Falls with 30 participants from over 100 square miles.  The goal was to begin the process of developing recommendations for how communities can engage and connect emerging leaders throughout northwestern Minnesota.  Guided by insights we learned in earlier focus group discussions, interviews, and research; the principles that emerged at the World Café session address the challenges leaders face when new to a profession, position or location:
1) Relationship-focused. Communities are people not location. There needs to be face-to-face interaction in engagement activities.
2) Intentional welcoming is important to engagement. It is important to be welcomed by other newcomers and long-time residents. New community members need to be recruited and participation by long-term residents or established leaders is key.
3) Shared experiences and values. Recommendations should build upon shared experiences and values in order to support openness and generate loyalty.
4) Cause and issue oriented events. There needs to be a cause or purpose to an event besides networking.  Networking is a desired result, but not a primary motivation itself.
5) Diverse opportunities. Events and offerings need a variety of opportunities for different demographics. Established community organizations should consider how to support newly arising groups growing out of shared areas of interest, identity, or life stage. 
Interestingly, participants took the process a step further in a way that was unexpected, but welcomed and necessary.  Participants began identifying potential barriers to implementing region strategies, given their economic and community realities.  By engaging in the critical process bridging theory with practice, participants of the World Cafe demonstrated the vision and leadership traits GMR sought to identify in the region.
It was also encouraging that local communities and employers from across West Central Minnesota appeared ready to work together and rebuild/market the life-work balance that Millennials value.  If they are to draw new workers wholesale, rural communities can ill-afford to approach regional challenges on their own for much longer.  By working together, they can offer a diverse and collaborative atmosphere that emerging leaders thrive in and Millennials expect. 

Carucci, R.A. (2006). Leadership Divided: What Emerging Leaders Need and What You Might Be Missing. Jossey-Bass.

If you are interested in learning more or helping to support Greater Minnesota Rising’s work, please visit our website and/or contact our leadership team.

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