Getting Them Up and Keeping Them Up: 10 Ways to Keep Gen Y Engaged and Working

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Millennials are a different breed. We can get into who should take the responsibility (translation: blame) for the sense of entitlement seen with this group of 16 to 30-year-olds, but that accomplishes nothing in an all but empty labor pool with way too much chlorine in it. Instead, attracting and keeping this disengaged generation concerned with your business is the mission. Love it or hate it, surrender or fight, solving the Gen Y labor crux requires unconventional thinking.

Flexibility in scheduling is huge. We are talking about a group of people that may sooner quit a job than miss a Mumford & Sons concert. Ask availability and be willing to change. This is one of those times when it is better to have two or three part-timers rather than one full-time prep cook.

Money is a motivator, but so is stuff. The occasional gift card, promo item, or token for a job well-done, attendance landmark, or positive customer satisfaction survey goes a long way to keep Millennial attention. Not empty nods at the routine, but honest mementos that give this group a little instant gratification. After all, who doesn’t like a gold star on homework every once in a while?

Give them something to broadcast. They may not Yelp about their work experience, but they sure will Facebook it, share photos on Instagram, and Snapchat little ditties. So give them fodder for their friends.

“My boss just told me I gave great service to a table with a miserable kid” will grab some Facebook likes and, well, that is web-spun gold for your Gen Y’er. A little empowerment is a worthy investment. Naming a dish, getting an item on the menu, or coming up with a limited-time offering is a cost-free engagement practice that unlocks an opportunity to share a proud moment for them at the workplace.

Expect to lose them. Ten dollars an hour is enough — for now. But when Big Whiskey Warehouse offers $10.05, they are gone. Why? Loyalty isn’t what it used to be. Don’t be offended, but it takes money to save the world, and that is noble!

Be environmentally conscious. Even if every piece of your restaurant isn’t green, have something meaningful with which this group can connect. Environmentally friendly packaging is a start. How about a partnership with a food bank? Or a one percent back to the community piece? It may not be much, but this is the Bernie Sanders generation looking for peace, goodwill, and universal prosperity.

Friends at work. Bonus, two-fold outcome with bringing in Millennials that travel in a pack. Hire friends. Use the current crop to recruit the next staffers and, at the same time, keep them happy by keeping their social needs fulfilled.

  • “It’s what makes it bearable. If your day is going to hell, it makes it worthwhile. I like working with my friends,” says Brittany, 24.
  • “I never want to work with certain people I can’t stand,” says John, 26.

Heap the praise. Likes, shares, pins, retweets are all high praise in the social media world. That existence is nary a shade away from the brick-and-mortar world in which the Millennial group is employed. And those same thumbs-up's are also necessary in your restaurant. Praise in public is easy, free, and very essential to keeping the Gen Y crop glued to their post.

Keep it fun. It used to be the challenges that were stimulating and engaging. It used be something as simple as money. We have evolved into an all-the-time, nonstop fun factory of big laughs and good times. While uplifting for mojo, it can get hard to keep the comedy routine rolling. It might mean that music gets played during mop time or theme days that allow service staff to wear shirts out of the norm. (Provided by you, of course.)

Phones aren’t going away, so compromise. You are tied to your cellphone so expecting them not to be is an unrealistic expectation. Come up with a crowd-developed policy for phone usage, like only using phones in the back of the house or not during peak times. Insisting that phones not to be used isn’t going to happen and will only frustrate everybody involved.

Feed them. Well. This group knows about food.

“Would food be a motivator? Hell yeah! When we have bagels and stuff for an early shift, it’s great!” says Cassandra, 20.  Staff meal is expected. Feed them like you feed customers. Offer vegetarian, of course. Big flavors. Fresh. Choices. If not, the objective will backfire and “it feels like a school cafeteria,” she laughs.

The restaurant labor market is in a crunch that has no foreseeable end. See it as darkness at the end of the tunnel or as an oncoming train. Either way, we need cooks and servers and bartenders and dishwashers. Surrender or drown, we are talking about inventive thinking to scoop the cream from the top of a slightly soured bucket of organic, grass-fed milk.