Expert: Businesses need to adapt to workforce changes

By Mike Lewis
Kathy George speaks during a Leadership Washington County event at the Press Room at The Herald-Mail in Hagerstown, Md. George is senior vice president of the franchise and license division, Spherion Staffing Services.

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Like customers, workers change over time, and businesses that don’t adapt to those changes risk missing out.

That was one of the messages Kathy George of Spherion Staffing Services delivered at a recent Leadership Washington County (Md.) event. The staffing company is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its Emerging Workforce Study.

Every year since 1997, George said, the study has dug into the changing workforce. Much of her talk in Hagerstown, Md., focused on “Connecting the Generations.” And she went over some of the popular generational differences, parsing out concerns and priorities for baby boomers, Generation X, millennials and subsequent generations.

For example, the youngest workers have grown up with the internet and smartphones and are likely to scoff at a workplace internet connection that’s slower than they one they use at home, she said. They grew up not by entertaining themselves with games and neighboring friends, but with a world of options literally on screens at their fingertips.

“You cannot underestimate how important technology is in the workplace,” she said, both to the company and its workers.

Through the years, the study has shown some disconnects between employers and their employees. For example, in a section on retaining employees, employers rated “supervisor relationship” as No. 1. But that was No. 7 on the employee list. For employees, the No. 1 factor was financial compensation.

The study was started to learn why employees take, keep and leave a job, George said. That later grew to include whether employers were keeping up with the changing trends.

“And if I had to summarize, I think what employers need to know is that they have to stay ahead of, not just current, but ahead of the motivations of each generation, because that’s what they have in the workplace today,” George said after her presentation. “And if they have a one-size-fits-all solution to everything, they’re going to miss out on being able to attract and retain a wider span of workers.”

It’s not new, she said.

“Every generation has failed not just to prepare for the next generation. They’ve waited too late to embrace the next generation. And it’s hurt us,” she said. “And we can’t afford to do that this time because the gap is so wide. The number of people that we need to fill positions today, it’s so high, we can’t afford to hide our head in the sand.”

George, who travels widely in her duties, said she’s heartened by the many efforts she sees as communities and companies try to engage not only young workers, but also school students.

For example, in Hagerstown, she found that more than half the employers she talked to said they were taking online courses to better educate themselves.

“I was very impressed by that,” she said. “So the needs are changing, (and) if you don’t stay current, you’re not really listening closely to your employees and you’re less likely to retain them.”