Lauren Stiller Rikleen state of the region

Lauren Stiller Rikleen speaks during the State of the Region conference at the Hilton Garden Inn at Levis Commons. 

PERRYSBURG — As Ohio faces an aging workforce and other employment challenges, the importance of the millennial generation in the workplace — and how to integrate them — is growing.

The 17th annual State of the Region conference focused on workforce development and how to navigate a changing employment landscape.

The conference, sponsored by the Bowling Green State University Center for Regional Development, took place at the Hilton Garden Inn at Levis Commons.

“If you talk to millennials in the workplace today, they see a (baby boomer) workforce focused on materialism,” said Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, in her keynote address. “They see people who by and large have created a very inflexible workplace culture that isn’t working for that generation.”

Attendees earlier in the morning got a generally positive — but still muted — image of how Ohio and the national economy is faring nearly a decade after the Great Recession.

In his address, Mark Schweitzer, a senior vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, said nationally the gross domestic product is expected to continue the 2-percent growth seen in recent years, and consumer confidence and purchasing ability have risen. Wage growth was picked up “a little,” he said.

While unemployment continues to fall nationally — it currently stands at 4.7 percent — Ohio’s figures have remained flat at about 5 percent, and “we get closer and closer to what people consider full employment.”

Adding in numbers for those who are underemployed, those figures rise to about the 9-percent level both nationally and in the state.

However, due to an older population and slower population growth, Ohio is continuing its typical trend of slower employment growth.

“We are likely to run into challenges with workforce,” Schweitzer said. “We’re not likely to find it easy to get workforce in most of the state, with the exception with some of the areas that perennially have a higher unemployment rate.”

During a panel discussion following his address, Schweitzer noted that Ohio tends to have a small outflow of population, though people moving into the state help offset that.

“Educating people in your local area is important because they’re less likely to move than the average person,” he said. “Educating and home-growing your talent is a viable strategy, it works.”

State Rep. Robert McColley, R-Napoleon, noted that the shift in interest toward workforce development over the past decade has been driven by Ohio’s aging population. The median age is 39.3 years, older than the national average of 37.8 years. Northwest Ohio’s median age is even older, at 39.9 years.

And while ahead of the statewide average in attainment of associate degrees, Northwest Ohio is behind in the number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees conferred, which he said is contributing to lower incomes across the state.

“As employers demand more and more skills of their employees to be competitive, we need to challenge ourselves to make these priority issues for Northwest Ohio,” McColley said.

He said public-private partnership is one way to help take control of workforce development.

Rikleen, who authored a recent book on millennials in the workforce, said members of that generation — people born beginning between 1978-1982 and up to 2000 — are coming into the workplace more stereotyped than any generation before them, but that many of the common beliefs about millennials don’t hold up to the statistics.

Millennials tend to be defined by the terms “realistic,” “pragmatic” and “optimistic,” she said, despite growing up in an environment that saw an increase in domestic terrorism and school shootings, among other issues.

Common markers of adulthood such as getting a first job and marriage are commonly happening later in life for millennials, and they statistically have had closer relationships with their families.

They care more about work-life integration, focusing on health and wellness and “living a complete life” alongside work.

While they may see baby boomers as “living to work,” millennials see themselves in many ways as “working to live,” Rikleen said.

She said perceptions that millennials aren’t as loyal to their employers as other generations are off base, noting many came into the workforce at a time of crisis — the recession — when shifting from one employer to another would have been necessary.

However, she said millennials tend to be loyal to people, not necessarily institutions, that care about their growth and development.

Also, Rikleen said that a word often bandied about when speaking about millennials, “entitlement,” is a misnomer.

“That ‘entitlement’ word should be thrown out. We’re not seeing entitlement at all,” but instead young people raised to be confident and to speak up, which can be off-putting for more senior individuals.

“That’s just human nature.”

Rikleen offered a series of strategies for strengthening multigenerational relationships in the workplace.

She said business leaders need to understand that, just as other factors in their industries are changing, so too is who is working for them. Millennials are looking for transparency in the workplace, how parts of a business fit together, and want to know why what they are doing matters.

Also, for a generation that may have had a great deal of adult engagement in their upbringing, a similar pattern of mentorship in the first few years of employment could improve retention.

Further, millennials are used to feedback, and not just feel-good compliments. Rikleen said she’s heard anecdotally that sometimes a lack of feedback can be viewed as negative feedback by some millennials, and that can lead to attrition.

An emphasis on team building can also be beneficial.

“Teamwork matters to millennials,” Rikleen said. “Teams can help you do a lot of things better.

“There’s a lot of data around millennials seeking meaning in their work. ... I think part of meaning in work is the ability to work with others in community projects or getting involved in the greater good.”

She concluded by noting that what millennials are looking for is good for the workplace.

“I think if we can view the generational issues we’re seeing in that light, it will make for healthier communications.”