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The importance of keeping up with millennials in the workplace

30 Apr 2021 By Nabil Al-Dabal

With the oldest members of generation Y turning 40 this year, Nabil Al-Dabal explains how organisations can best nurture and retain the labour market’s younger age groups

If you were looking for the playbook on how to nurture and retain millennials and generation Z, you might assume you’d find it in Silicon Valley. Perhaps you would seek insights from a fintech company, or a start-up with a ping-pong table in the lobby and a ‘bring your dog to work’ policy.

But I’d like to suggest looking in a much more unexpected place – Saudi Arabia – where our focus on developing unique mentoring and learning programs for younger generations have yielded tremendous success. We’ve done this out of both necessity and choice. 

While the Western world is considering ‘second-act’ career continuations due to a rapidly aging population, our region has the opposite challenge. We see a massive demographic bulge of young people taking their place in the world of work.

At Aramco, millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) make up around 65 per cent of our workforce. Compare that with the USA, where 35 per cent of the workforce are millennials. The average age of an Aramco oil worker is 30, compared with 42 in the UK and around 47 in Australia and New Zealand. Meanwhile, generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) already accounts for about 7 per cent of our workforce.

What millennials want

As the oldest millennials turn 40 this year and begin taking up senior leadership positions, their place in the ranks is no mere accident, but a constant and consistent development program that has been taking place for more than a decade. Retaining this precious resource is a matter of understanding their priorities and having the courage to put this generation’s needs front and centre when designing our workplace experience and career support structures. 

People often ask me whether millennials and generation Z are really so different to previous generations, and whether they have different needs. The answer from our experience is yes – and that’s a good thing. 

We know from numerous research projects by leading organisations, including Ipsos, KPMG and PwC, that these digital natives want purpose-driven work and appreciate flatter organisational structures that give them a chance to have their input recognised. They prioritise lifelong learning and upskilling. They like flexibility in their career and being exposed to different roles – which can be challenging for employers. And they also want to ensure a happy work-life balance. 

Changing the culture

Back in 2011, we could see the demographic trend of our company accelerating towards this next generation, and our CEO took an active role in creating programs that would both nurture our young talent, and learn from them at the same time. 

We set up our Young Leaders Advisory Board (YLAB) to act as a bridge between the youth of the company and its executive management. We deliberately made YLAB an autonomous body, with a direct line to our strategy council, so we could harness the energy of these young people and tap into their insights without getting bogged down in hierarchical reporting structures.

YLAB provides a young perspective on a wide range of corporate issues, such as innovation, training, and engagement, and the 16 young people in each cohort are given autonomy and responsibility to help the company drive change from within. Graduates describe it as a highlight of their professional career and say they’ve gained years’ worth of experience in just 18 months of the program. But YLAB can also be credited with changing the culture within our traditionally hierarchical structure to encourage younger workers to contribute and add value to their voices.

A passion for learning

If YLAB helps shape the organisation, our elite learning programs are where we really grow our young talent – with 1,400 employees taking part in a range of 16 different courses in 2020. Lifelong learning is a passion for millennials and generation Z, and we have recently boosted our partnerships with Harvard Business School, Wharton, Stanford, INSEAD, London Business School, Singularity University, Oxford University and many others to provide the best possible education and training across every part of the company. 

Many of our young people tell me that even though they have job offers in other companies, they don’t want to leave because they know that they will never have this level of training and education anywhere else. That is key to our retention of our top talent, especially those under 40. 

And millennials’ and generation Z’s influence spreads from there. Y-Connect was established in our Pipelines, Distribution and Terminals area, where some 3,700 employees aged 35 years and under account for 63 per cent of the workforce. There are similar groups growing and influencing every part or our organisation, including N-Gage in HR, all seeking to channel the energies of the younger generation.

Making work better

Many surveys of millennials reveal their desire for a good work-life balance and we’ve responded with significant efforts on wellbeing that have the advantage of being beneficial for all age groups. We’ve introduced hundreds of online courses in managing stress, exercise, and creating healthy habits, and these are available not only for employees but their families as well. Our Company offers many different recreational programs and sports and we are looking to launch a comprehensive online wellness platform before the end of the year. 

These are all lessons that will help businesses everywhere, as the workforce gradually becomes skewed toward millennial employees and their younger colleagues. Multi-generational workplaces have much to gain from the younger generations—whether it’s a growth mindset, better workplace technology, or an interest in mental wellbeing—and we’ve found that ‘the tide rises all ships’ when it comes to a happy and healthy work environment.

Our key learning at Aramco is that a Gen-Y-and-Z-friendly workplace is actually an everybody-friendly workplace. While younger generations have asked for more purpose-driven and meaningful work, this shift in our mindset has actually improved our employee engagement scores across all generations. 

As the world steps out into a post-pandemic ‘new normal’, employers will have to do much more to retain their best employees. In our company, we have found that we don’t need a ping-pong table to help our people thrive. We have found that a simple adage serves us much better. Take care of your people, and they will take care of the company.

Nabil K. Al-Dabal is vice president of human resources at Aramco

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