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Planning for 2030: Huntsville companies set future course by engaging, mentoring younger workforce

Members of Canvas' team in Huntsville

By Claire Aiello
Vice President of Marketing & Communications
Huntsville/Madison County Chamber
caiello@hsvchamber.org

This article appears in the August 2018 issue of Initiatives magazine.

There’s a conversation starting to take shape around Huntsville. You may have encountered it in your workplace, and, if not, it’s something you should talk about with your team. The topic can be scary at first – but if you embrace it, your company will be more prepared for the big generational change that’s coming in just over a decade.

So, what is happening, exactly?

Kristin Scroggin, founder of genWHY Communications

“2030 is the big number that all companies need to keep an eye on,” said Kristin Scroggin. “Every baby boomer in the United States is eligible for retirement in 2030. They will not all take it, but if even ¼ of them take it, things are going to get crazy. And ¼ of them will take it.”

Scroggin is the founder of genWHY Communications, which consults with companies about generational diversity and how different age groups interact in the workplace. Every generation brings something different to the table, from baby boomers through Generation X, Generation Y, millennials and the younger employees now coming in, called iGens.

OMG, the Millennials

It’s no secret that younger employees come in with a different way of thinking. They’ve grown up with social media, hashtags, cell phones, apps and other technology many of us have had to learn on the fly. They have sparked new conversations in the workplace, and possibly a few eye rolls from older employees. However, millennials bring many strengths of their own. They are quick thinkers and adapt well to change, Scroggin says.

Grooming the Younger Workforce

Members of Canvas’ team in Huntsville

Canvas takes a different approach by welcoming millennials, and it is now working to groom their younger workforce into future leaders.

Canvas is a government contractor headquartered in downtown Huntsville. The company has about 100 employees, 80 in Huntsville, and about 35 percent are millennials. Canvas CEO Jami Peyton founded the company in 2007 and said the movement to embrace younger team members started with internships.

“That was our most effective form of recruitment for college kids, and we were able to be very selective about who we decided to retain for long-term efforts, so we made sure our younger workforce matched our company ethos,” said Peyton. “Then we established a mentorship program early on to help grow that younger workforce into becoming professionals at the early stage of their career.”

Jami Peyton, CEO and Founder of Canvas

“What we’re looking at now is how we groom our younger workforce into leaders,” Peyton added. “We figured the best way to work with them is to go ahead and put them into decision-making roles, and allow them the autonomy they need to grow in their permanent position.”

Jay Langiewicz, 33, and Andrew Melton, 30, are two of Canvas’ younger employees. Langiewicz joined the company in 2011, and Melton joined Canvas in 2015. Langiewicz now has a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Organizational Leadership & Behavior, and the company helped pay for both. Melton is now pursuing a Master’s paid for by Canvas.

“It wasn’t just the financials, because that’s a scary thing to do as a young man or a young person, to jump into a Master’s program because they’re expensive,” said Langiewicz. “Canvas helped take that roadblock down and helped encourage me to go do that, making that life decision I needed to make.”

“I’ll echo that,” added Melton. “There was one semester where I was going to take a break and Jami said ‘just take one class.’ As someone who has student loan debt from my bachelor’s… signing up to do something like a MBA, having that burden lifted, and the motivation to do it was invaluable.”

Scroggin said this kind of investment by a company pays off in several ways.

“Not only are they going after more education, they are also getting skills that are fresh and new that they can bring to the organization right now,” said Scroggin. “So, every day they go to class, they come back with some new concept, new theory, new idea that they’re bringing to the forefront. You want to definitely keep people in school — people you trust and want to make the investment in — because they’re going to be bringing in the freshest research, the freshest concepts, the freshest ideas.”

Langiewicz is now being mentored by the company’s president. “We see him moving into a larger capacity in his role,” Peyton said.

Intermingling to Solve Problems

Part of genWHY’s work with various companies includes training designed to help employees of different ages solve problems together. Michele Armstrong of ERC recalled when Scroggin hosted one of these sessions with her company’s managers.

One of genWHY Communications’ recent training sessions with ERC, showing managers of different generations paired together.

“She had us do an interactive session about having difficult conversations and being the strong leader within. We had to practice speaking to each other without making any facial or hand gestures,” Armstrong said. “It was interactive – we really got to see why one person is one way, and why another acts differently. She’s got a whole workbook full of these – all kinds of ways to help people intermingle with generational thinking, and how to problem solve.”

ERC was founded in Huntsville, where it maintains its corporate headquarters. Armstrong said the company is working to implement generational diversity thinking into its six other locations, too.

“We’ve learned this is not only valuable for ERC employees, but some of our government customers – people who are 60, 65 – the workforce that is aging out. They’ve attended the training and find it totally eye opening. They had not thought about some of these topics, like the sharing down of knowledge with the younger workforce.”

Culture of Giving

Another benefit important to millennial employees is the ability to give and have a say in where the money is going. Moseley Technical Services went through genWHY’s training within the last year, and Recruiting Manager SeSee Munson said it shed new light on this topic.

“We knew we wanted to give back, because we’re a faith-based company. But we didn’t interpret it as a benefit,” said Munson. “After the training, we see that now. During hiring interviews, candidates will ask ‘what type of community service do you offer?’ So we understand now it’s not just us serving the community, it’s us serving the internal customer, too – the employee.”

Munson said employees like to give differently – millennials are often interested in volunteering, while other generations just want to write a check. Some want to stay anonymous, and others want to see their names on a sponsorship.

“It’s incredible how successful it was to the architects of Moseley Gives Back,” Munson said, describing how the company’s giving program took on new meaning. “We picked a few programs, did a survey of what employees wanted to work on, and then picked the top three.”

Moseley Technical Service employees prepare Thanksgiving meals for local families in need. (November 2017)

In 2017, Moseley employees adopted six families who had been identified as at-risk. For Thanksgiving, they provided meals and gift cards, and for Christmas, they had an Angel Tree at work with the children’s wishes.

“We took the gifts and wrapping paper to the parents so they could wrap them. On average, employees spent $150 per child,” Munson said. The company also purchased Galaxy Notebooks and Wal-Mart gift cards for the families.

“All of this was the generosity that bubbled up from the employees, because we offered them what they wanted,” she added.

Common Theme

Giving is a common theme in all three companies, as is having a say in where your dollars go. Canvas has donated to charity since it was founded, supporting such organizations as the Boys and Girls Club, Huntsville Hospital Foundation and Huntsville Botanical Garden. Employees also raise money every year for the Marines’ Toys for Tots “Bikes or Bust” drive and go as a team to purchase the bicycles.

Next year, Canvas will establish an employee giving fund through the Community Foundation.

“Employees will be able to vote where their money is contributed – giving employees the opportunity to be personally vested,” Peyton said.

At ERC, Armstrong said the training helped her see she had to switch her messaging in how she asks employees to give – and then she reports back.

“Bankers, lawyers, and others like to support the arts or do more broad-level giving. But engineers, highly technical people give to trades, give back to their schools, and I’ve learned I need to give them the stats, show them the impact we’ve had and where their money is going,” Armstrong explained.

ERC’s Helping Hands Fund has supported employees in Texas and Florida cope with hurricane and flood damage in recent years. ERC has also contributed to HudsonAlpha for work being done to stop Alzheimer’s disease. They do this in honor of their founder, Dr. Susan Wu, who is battling the disease.

Employees from ERC visit HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology to learn about research being done there. (Photo: ERC)

“Seamless Transition”

Erin Bloxham Curtis, Marketing Director at Canvas, said all of these efforts to keep happy employees fold in to a company’s mission to share knowledge and encourage leadership in the coming years. This way, the customer continues to be pleased and doesn’t notice a change in service when older employees retire.

“Your ultimate goal – for government contractors – we want the customer to be happy. This seamless transition needs to happen without the customer realizing this has happened,” said Bloxham Curtis. “That’s our ultimate goal, to make sure in the time between now and 2030, we have groomed that future leadership to take those roles that ultimately makes the customer the happiest.”