(Mike Shapiro/For Capital Business)

Millennials or Generation Yers — those born between 1980 and 2000 and currently 12 to 32 years old — are the largest generation since the baby boomers and they are expected to have a huge social and economic impact on the workplace.

I recently moderated a session on millennials in the workplace with a number of our alumni in executive positions in diverse industries at a Robert H. Smith School of Business executive MBA community event. They shared their ideas about millennials and what their firms are doing to retain them.

What millennials want from the workplace

“We call them the ‘and’ generation,” said Liam Brown, chief operations officer at the hotel giant Marriott International. “They want a career and fun and a balanced life and to make an impact on the world. They don’t want to give anything up, and they really want to do a lot of good things for the firm and the community,” he said. “At Marriott, we have found that millennials seek a workplace that offers opportunities to advance and grow in their careers, plus a demonstrated commitment to social responsibility.”

Karen Reinhardt, a talent development executive with Lockheed Martin, noted that millennials want to be empowered.

“Millennials want a little bit of guidance, along with opportunities to express themselves and to be innovative. I’ve managed millennials on teams at Lockheed Martin and am consistently impressed with how talented, creative and resourceful they are. If you give them opportunities to share their insights, they can really come up with ideas that others may not have even considered.”

Experts often refer to this as reverse mentoring — using millennials to share some of their skills with their older mentors.

“Millennials are technically savvy, and we appreciate learning from them as much as they learn from us,” said Sue Adams, a manager with the Labor Department.

Challenges with different generations

Some of the audience remarked that it’s not always easy having employees of various generations in the workplace. One Generation Xer said, “Dealing with millennials for me is like drinking water from a fire hose — it takes my breath away.”

Others pointed out how millennials may balk at having to do “grunt work” like scanning or copying documents. Another noted that some of them come to the workplace with minimal work experiences since their baby boomer parents sheltered them from having to work, and instead told them to focus solely on school as their job in life. Several commented that they seem to come to the workplace with a fairly assertive, self-assured perspective, which may not be based on reality given their limited previous work experiences.

At BB&T Bank, “we use mentoring in our leadership development programs,” said Heath Campbell, a senior vice president at BB&T. “Our proteges [often millennials] are given very practical exercises where they have to prepare and deliver reports to clients. This gives them a chance to see what they know and what they don’t know, and it enables us to use these teachable moments to groom and further develop them.”

Best advice for retaining millennials

Many organizations have devised strategies for keeping millennials engaged as they brace for a wave of baby boomer retirements. Marriott International, for example, has numerous programs in place to engage millennials. These include networking events where high-potential millennials are invited to informally meet with senior leadership, training for general managers on valuing the multigenerational workforce and flexible workplace options that may be more attractive to millennials.

Lockheed’s Reinhardt noted that millennials value development opportunities. She pointed out that at Lockheed, her company has created leadership development programs such as online learning, classroom training, special job assignments, mentoring, on-the-job training and participation on special task forces. These types of programs have been popular with millennials who really want to be challenged and advance in their careers.

Similarly, at BB&T, Campbell said millennials might be selected into their BB&T leadership development program, a 10-month intense experience where they can learn from classroom activities, on-the-job experiences and simulations. The program is designed to fast-track talented millennials in order to retain them. At the Labor Department, Adams pointed out the variety of internships and job opportunities for younger workers, many of whom want to work on environmental issues as well as workforce concerns.

“We need to respect what each generation brings to the workplace,” said Brown of Marriott. “Good leaders and managers know how to engage and retain employees, regardless of their background or generation.”

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.