A Guide to Recruiting and Retaining Next-Gen Association Professionals

April 6, 2015 By: Bryan C. Harrison

Speaking from experience, one young association professional offers some advice for organizations on how to attract and retain millennial employees.

Recruiting and retaining high-performing young professionals has become a focus of associations looking to reduce the generation gap on their staffs between retiring and emerging leaders. Adding to this challenging endeavor is a target generation—millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000)—capable and confident but often plagued by inaccurate stereotypes resulting in generational misunderstanding.

Speaking from experience as an older millennial and quoting relevant studies, the following will explore impactful methods associations can employ as they strive to hire and retain a new generation of leaders. 

Recruiting 101

Effective recruiting of millennials begins with having an open mind. On occasion, I hear that we are the "entitled and lazy" generation. Yet, evidence has been cited that this generation's depth goes well beyond their expert selfie-taking abilities.

Millennials are making a positive difference in the world. According to Bentley University's "Millennials in the Workplace" study [PDF], 84 percent of millennials stated that "knowing I am helping to make a positive difference in the world" is more important than professional recognition.

Leigh Buchanon, author of Meet the Millennials draws a similar conclusion: "One of the characteristics of millennials … is that they are primed to do well by doing good," she writes. "Almost 70 percent say that giving back and being civically engaged are their highest priorities."

These statistics should come as a relief to associations: It means they are primed for recruiting next-generation association professionals via the altruism found in their mission statements. Hiring managers should focus on creating recruitment messages that speak to the power an individual has to positively impact the association's members and industry.

It isn't all sunshine though; compensation does factor into a millennial's decision to accept a job offer or even apply to work for a particular organization.

A recent study by Stanford University's Graduate School of Business discussed the average base pay of its MBA graduates. At the top of the scale was a graduate making over $500,000 while the median base salary of Stanford's MBA graduate was $125,000. Specific average base salaries per industry included finance ($147,000 to $157,000), management consulting ($132,000), retail ($110,000), and nonprofits ($85,000).  

Reduced pay will make it challenging for nonprofits to compete against their for-profit counterparts for the best talent, but this has been a well-known challenge in our industry for many years. It's important to leverage association benefits beyond salary to recruit top talent, including (in no specific order)

  • geographic location
  • perceived fit of company culture
  • career pathing and employee development
  • value proposition found in pursuing the mission statement
  • challenging work assignments
  • interdepartmental work environment or rotational assignments

Retaining 101

With a clearer understanding of the employment areas that can attract millennials to work for an association, the next step is keeping them around. As compared to prior generations' employment attrition rates, millennials bounce around from job to job at a higher rate earlier in their career life cycle. For this reason, it's imperative that an association have a robust and clearly defined strategy to retain high-talent young association professionals. To that end, it's important to avoid three common pitfalls in the areas of recognition, impact, and professional development.

Millennial employees become disengaged when they believe their unique value is not appreciated. Additionally, if their unique value goes unrecognized, there is a greater chance of losing the millennial to another organization. And targeted career development is a key retention tool, no matter what generation the employee hails from.

Recognition. Avoid surface compliments in favor of in-depth recognition. Millennials are more likely to remember how they feel when receiving a compliment versus the specific content of the compliment; therefore, focus on the unique personality trait resulting in why they succeeded rather than giving a simple "that-a-boy" for hitting a specific metric or outcome. Next, draw a connection between the personality trait and a strategic directive of the company or its possible effect on the end user, if applicable.

Seem like a lot of work for a manager? It isn't, especially when considering the alternative of having a disengaged employee or losing that employee altogether. Additionally, a higher performing employee is the consequence of in-depth recognition, and it's been proven through communication experts like Dale Carnegie that, as a general rule, people find more satisfaction in giving a compliment than receiving one.

Impact. Connecting the employment tasks of a millennial to having a positive impact on the organization or industry can be a bit more challenging to execute. Fortunately, nonprofits are far better positioned than their for-profit counterparts in making a strong connection. Millennials are masters at their ability to determine authenticity; therefore, it's imperative for management to make an honest and realistic connection between the task completed and an objective that supports the mission or vision of the company.

Professional development. The third retention area for millennials is targeted career pathing. It should come as no surprise that an employee wants to feel valued through a genuine investment in his or her professional development, yet the most often cited reason for young-professional employment attrition is lack of or unclear development opportunities. The solution? Building structured individual development plans in the area of education and certifications programs, mentoring and coaching, and career pathing illustrates an authentic desire that the association is fully vested in the employee's advancement.

While there have been hundreds of articles written on this topic, it isn't rocket science. Recruiting and retaining young professionals at its core is very simple: We are simply looking for and will stay with an association that invests in our success. In return, the organization will receive many years of loyal, dedicated service from a hard-working, thought-provoking stream of young leaders.

Bryan C. Harrison

Bryan C. Harrison, PMP, QAS, CSC, is senior manager of networks at the Specialty Equipment Market Association in Diamond Bar, California.