The changing workforce and, consequently, labor market is the topic of this article. Our discussion focuses on millennials, those born after 1980 – and thus employees under 35 today. We also check out what current research tells us leads to great, engaged employees. We also look at how you can capitalize on this knowledge with more professional hiring and supervising practices.

Milligan bob
Senior Consultant / Dairy Strategies LLC
Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornel...

Understanding today’s young workforce

I believe that “young people today are not willing to work hard” serves best as a symptom of millennials’ attitudes about work and life. Remember that millennials were raised in the 1980s and 1990s. These were decades of increased affluence, low unemployment and before the turbulence of 9/11 and other world events. We look at two key points.

First, most employers with the “will not work hard” attitude about young people today are baby boomers like me, meaning we are 50 years old or older. Although we did not experience the difficulties of two world wars and a Great Depression like our parents, we heard plenty about those years and grew up hoping for but not necessarily expecting to have a job that was meaningful to us.

Many or most millennials have the expectation that their job will provide meaning. Thus, our phrase could be rewritten as, “Young people today are not willing to work hard at a position that does not have meaning to them.”

Second, as many millennials look back at their childhood years, they recognize they were given more material things – toys, clothes, sports, music programs, etc. – than any previous generation. Referring to millennials as the “trophy generation” recognizes this affluence and everyone receiving a trophy in competitive activities.


Millennials often also recognize, however, that this affluence often resulted from their parents working so hard and so long that they had little time left for their children. The result is that millennials as a group place a higher premium on life balance than previous generations.

For some, the outcome is a feeling of entitlement and an unwillingness to work hard. Most, however, are willing to work hard, often very hard, in positions where their need for life balance is recognized and accommodated.

Many of you are crop farmers who must have a workforce that puts in long hours at planting and harvest. What does this life balance priority mean for you? I believe there are millennials that would not consider such a position. I do believe, however, that many would be interested in meaningful positions where life balance needs are recognized during the remaining months of the year.

Creating meaningful positions

This – the vision thing – is not as difficult as you think. Think about and articulate why what you do is meaningful to you. Now communicate that continuously and especially in explaining decisions and assignments.

Articulating and engaging the workforce in a meaningful vision is essential. However, research tells us that more is required. Research on human behavior (psychology) and brain function (neuropsychology) sheds great light on how individuals and a workforce can have superior productivity and extraordinary job satisfaction with a desire to thrive and excel.

The answer is surprisingly simple but challenging to implement. As with many animal and crop research results, the answer forces us to abandon generally accepted ways of thinking.

The answer is: People are moved to be productive, engaged and fulfilled when their psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence are fulfilled. The three needs are:

  • Autonomy: Our human need to perceive we have choices. It is our need to feel that what we are doing is of our own volition. It is our perception that we are the source of our own actions.

  • Relatedness: Our need to care about and be cared about. It is our need to feel connected to others without concerns about ulterior motives. It is our need to feel that we are contributing to something greater than ourselves.

  • Competence: Our need to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities. It is demonstrating skill over time. It is feeling a sense of growth and flourishing.

Supervisory and leadership training and development will enable you to implement practices that will create a ranch business culture that will attract millennials and workers of all ages.

Professional recruitment and selection practices

Hiring by ranches and other family businesses comes with good news and bad news. The bad news is that these businesses must compete for employees with large businesses with human resource departments.

The good news is that businesses like yours can compete for employees. Why? First, potential employees, especially millennials, often prefer the small business atmosphere. Second, you can develop professional-looking recruitment material and conduct a professional selection process. It does, however, require making hiring a priority, perhaps with some professional help. Just as with your production enterprises, success requires excellent processes – recruitment and selection.

I suggest that the hiring processes revolve around the three to five competencies you select that will most contribute to success in the position. Competencies are the observable and measurable skills, knowledge, performance behaviors and personal attributes that contribute to enhanced employee performance and personal success.

The following is an example competency set for a feeder position:

  • Successful experience doing repetitive tasks
  • A penchant for precision
  • Positive work attitude
  • Reliability

What should I do?

I expect at this point you are thinking: “I am a cattle producer; I am not an HR manager.” Actually, what we are talking about is not HR management. You can hire someone to do the HR logistics.

What we are talking about is your job as a cattle producer. Your job as a cattle producer is to create a ranch structure and culture where the business can thrive. In the 21st century, acquiring and retaining an outstanding workforce is an important, perhaps the most important, part of that job.

Here are three suggestions for getting started to become the leader your ranch requires. Just as you engage trusted advisers for the production and financial components of your business, you may need assistance here.

1. Develop a plan to articulate the meaning your ranch has for you. Now communicate that to current and future employees.

2. Make recruitment and selection continuing processes. Develop a set of recruitment materials and a selection schedule including interview questions. Continually look for great prospects through word of mouth and networking.

3. Develop a plan for yourself and other owners, leaders and managers to improve your leadership, supervision and hiring skills.

We can now restate our initial very negative statement in a realistic, positive format: “Young people today will work hard at a position that is meaningful to them and recognizes their life balance priority.”  end mark

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Bob Milligan
  • Bob Milligan

  • Professor Emeritus
  • Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University
  • Email Bob Milligan