6 years ago

Startup Chic vs Corporate Geek: Can Gen-Y retention predict success?

A 2011 study on global employee engagement by BlessingWhite Research revealed that of all generations currently in the work force, Generation Y is the highest retention risk for employers this year.

Specifically in North America, 56% of millennials noted they are either “actively planning to” or “on the fence” about leaving their employer, citing “lack of career growth opportunities” as the number one reason for their departure.

It’s no secret those of us who fall into the Gen-Y demographic grow tired of jobs we master much quicker than prior generations.

But with our above-average need to be continually challenged come the perks of rapid learning speeds, tech savvy and the jaw-dropping light-speed at which we multi-task our way through a workday.

Yet, the stats show the unique needs of the Gen-Y workforce are clearly not being addressed by managers at large organizations not just in North America, but globally, despite truckloads of information available to corporations on exactly that.

The highlights below are just a few of many from the report that should scare the apathy out of any company not currently focusing on improving Gen-Y retention:

  • Gen Y reports the highest % of disengaged employees in the workplace globally at 25%
  • Lack of visible career growth opportunities & little direct feedback from managers are top reasons for leaving
  • Direct size/engagement correlation: The larger the company, the more disengaged young employees
  • Technology ranks worst of all sectors in total % disengaged

So, what does this mean for the travel industry, especially at larger companies like airlines, hotel chains, GDSs and travel management companies where Gen Y is statistically at greater risk to become disengaged?

Small is to Sexy as Big is to Bureaucratic


To dig deeper into this issue, I asked a few of my millennial peers to share their thoughts, with all having worked for both start-ups and large companies in travel.

Kelly Gillease, VP of marketing at Viator and a Yahoo alumna, shared why she’s found the perfect fit in a smaller environment:

“The most critical factor for me is that my work has an impact on the business. I strongly like working in organizations where I can see the day to day impact my ideas and initiatives have, on the bottom line, and throughout the organization.”

But when stating what comes to mind when considering the alternative of working for a giant like those mentioned above, Gillease, Evan Konwiser, co-founder of Flightcaster, and Kyle Duffy, VP of global accounts at Revinate, all describe their apprehension with one word: bureaucracy.

“I think [airlines and GDSs] can be exciting companies with massive challenges that I’m itching to try and solve,” says Konwiser. “I’m just deathly afraid of getting stuck in a job that doesn’t excite me or motivate me.”

Gillease isn’t as interested, identifying her optimal company size at 100-150, where you know everyone’s name.

“I would seriously be concerned about an airline or GDS being crushed under the weight of their own bureaucracy,” she says.

And when sharing how action-oriented her current employer is, she fears a role in middle management at a larger organization would be ineffective:

“While I would love to try to solve all their [airline or GDSs] problems, I’m not sure they’d let me.”

Middle management = a kick in the shorts

When it comes to middle management, the general consensus seems to be… well… that it sucks.

Gillease noted two key challenges she thinks explain why it rarely is an enjoyable rung on anyone’s career ladder.

  • Too many mediocre managers clogging the ranks due to lack of accountability
  • Little-to-no influence in big decisions due to too much hierarchy

While I’ve personally chosen to muddle through the middle, I’ve found my biggest challenge isn’t one listed above. Instead, it’s remembering to relentlessly do the same things with the same gusto that got me there in the first place.

Otherwise, I risk being lulled into a state of complacency, and that puts anyone at danger to become disengaged. That’s also why I have to remind myself it’s okay to be impatiently over-performing my way out of the long slog through the middle.

But even in middle management, I believe there are opportunities for millennials to learn a TON.

Personally, I feel lucky to be learning the guts of the most complex industry in the world from a giant 50 years in the making. That knowledge will be priceless to the future leader I plan to be.

But on the days I envy my peers climbing the start-up ladder faster than I can walk from the parking garage to my cubicle, I have to remember that my passion for our business and thirst for knowledge is why I’ve chosen to learn on this path… And the travel distribution mothership is one hell of a teacher.

But when stumbled into by a millennial without having proper expectations set up front, middle management at any large company can be kryptonite to long-term retention.

Is location really everything?

Location is another important factor in technology recruiting, as both Konwiser and Gillease point out.

“Location is a big deal,” Konwiser states. “Where is travel tech? Dallas, Atlanta. Chicago. None of those cities can support thousands of top talent engineers.”

Gillease shared another perspective.

“The stability of working at a GDS and the more family-friendly nature of their locations (cheaper real estate, better public schools) does make them appealing for people who are really geared toward an easier family life.”

She’s quite right.

But it begs the question, will the companies that are good at retaining employees interested in “stability” and an “easy family life” be the same ones best positioned to compete in a rapidly evolving technology ecosystem? Especially one touting more attempts at start-up disruption than almost any other industry.

Maybe. Maybe not. But as Gillease points out, it’s possible the continued globalization of our workforces one day makes location a moot point. Time will tell.

Duffy has had experience working at an airline and an OTA owned by a GDS, and from his perspective, some employees at large companies are enjoying that stability a little too much.

“It takes a long time make significant changes [at an airline or GDS]. Many of the employees are ‘lifers’ who are happy receiving a paycheck and float along.”

What’s apparent is that by nature Gen-Y will shun the concept of “lifetime employment” and gather broad ranges of experience. But conversely, in one of the most complex industries in the world… it goes back to the core question: Will it become difficult for today’s large travel companies to be successful long-term without retention?

Winning the millennial talent war

Ultimately, Konwiser believes that the biggest challenge will not be merely filling cubicles, but competing with the rest of the industry for those recruits who are truly the cream of the crop.

“The startup world is so sexy nowadays and it’s so easy to be on your own, even at a young age. The biggest concern [for GDSs and airlines] is how to fill out the ranks with people that have options.”

So, if we agree the battle to retain young leaders today will ultimately impact the industry’s winners and losers tomorrow, who’s winning the war?

NB: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Sabre Holdings, its partners, customers or subsidiaries.

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Sarah Kennedy Ellis

About the Writer :: Sarah Kennedy Ellis

Sarah Kennedy Ellis is VP of Marketing for Sabre Hospitality Solutions.

At Sabre since 2007, Sarah has spent time working in a variety of divisions including everything from strategy and product development to social media marketing and R&D.

She was selected as one of the first members of PhoCusWright's inaugural "Class of 35" in 2009, recognizing the top 35 young leaders under the age of 35 in travel.

She also is invited to speak at a variety of technology conferences & industry events each year on topics including emerging technology and innovation management.

The views expressed by Sarah on Tnooz are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Sabre Holdings, its partners, customers or subsidiaries.



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  1. Parker Buckley

    This article is retarded because it encourages young people to quit their jobs for some magical startup experience where they will get to set their own hours, work less, be casual and wear running shoes while everything falls into their laps. This is not how the business world works. Entrepreneurs work 16 hour days; I know because I am one. They don’t wear sneakers; they wear suit and tie. I know because this is what I do. They have to constantly fight against large corporations and sell their products nonstop. There is nothing easy about it. There are no open concept lofts with a bunch of happy hipsters running around and playing ping-pong. There is just a ton of hard work, nonstop meetings, networking events and other activities. You don’t make enough to buy your Tesla until you make it big and by the time you do they won’t make Teslas anymore. Your article isn’t realistic; it’s delusional rubbish.

  2. Richard Eastman

    The big difference between the youth of today (Generation Y/millennials) as reflected in Sarah Ellis’ essay and “us” older folks (I’m older than TOD) … is the Internet. As noted by Timothy and others, each generation has set out to change the world; and Sarah’s appeal is little different.

    Still, Sarah’s Internet world … the digital world … has enabled three things that are different from the tools of earlier generations.

    First, it has removed the current generation from the constraints of local culture and opened access to much of the world. Second, it has increased the speed with which ideas and concepts … and thus, knowledge … can be disseminated and absorbed. And third, as the only generation to have grown up entirely in the digital era, the Internet has changed the millennials approach to how this generation thinks and reasons.
    This thinking is echoed in “The Connected Generation Comes of Age.” (“The Connected General Comes of Age”, Trends e-Magazine, April 2011, Page 4-8). “Members of the ‘Connected Generation’ all have cell phones and they use them more for texting than for voice conversations”, the story points out. “While preceding generations also share these technologies …, the ‘Connected Generation’ has a common “connected mindset” that sets them apart ….”
    The ubiquitous nature of access to and use of information is virtually flattening the way that people and groups organize to serve each other. It is restructuring the way people meet the expectations and demands or needs of one another. The 7X24 connectivity and instantaneous need to respond to the expectations of each other person means that it will necessary for most people, if not all, to blend work and non-work time. And travel and travel-planning, whether for business, non-business, or mixed needs … will have to reflect these new needs in both real time living and customer service responses.(Eastman’s “Off-the-Wall Comment(s), June, 2011<>).
    All that said, while there is a clear trend toward the flattening of the business cultures and social environments, there are numerous behavioral studies that provide statistical evidence to support the fact that roughly 75% of the world’s humans remain dependent on the security provided by working within established paradigms of business and/or social structures. It is how we humans are able to collectively survive and prosper. And of the remaining 25%, roughly half seek to live within or manage the structures that already exist in one way or another.
    Therefore, while the businesses and social enterprises that we work for … or with … (i.e. have less formal “middle management” structure) as a function of the pace/speed at which we gain and share knowledge, the role-relationships are not likely to change significantly. In other words, while we may find ourselves working and feeling in more independent or more autonomous relationships – our mutual needs for interaction and security (food, shelter, and freedom from physical threat) will result in working relationships not dissimilar to those we know now … including the frustration and angst of other’s not “really understanding” what needs to change.
    In the whole of human society, “change” is something that is generally incremental with occasional evolutionary leaps. And while we are likely experiencing such an evolutionary leap in these years, the transition period will be long … and the Y-Generation will be “old folks” by the time it stabilizes again. So, enjoy the ride.
    MOO (my opinion only)

  3. GTG

    There is no doubt that current technology and the internet have lowered barriers for starting a business – be it a start-up or self-employment, but the issue of motivating employees, esp in large companies, is nothing new – surely?

    Clearly larger companies will always struggle to be anything like as efficient, personal or smooth running as smaller companies – that’s down to scale.

    Perhaps the (old adage of) impetuosity of youth coupled with newer employment opportunities has accentuated things somewhat. But from looking at my peers in their late 20s, most people are happy to “muddle through the middle” for a career. The risk takers may be legendarily well documented but I don’t believe they are as commonly found as people think.

    I did enjoy the article, it struck a chord as, personally, thoughts of leaving my safe and steady place for something riskier and more exciting come regularly.

  4. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    As my mother would tell me ceaselessly….

    “You cannot put old heads on young bodies.”

    And as I would always respond.

    “True Mum and you cannot put 22 year old bodies under 55 year old heads….”

    So being the old curmudgeon that I can occasionally be. Gen Y’s are no different (in my view) than any other Generation when they first show up in the workforce.

    Having hired a fair number of people from all age groups, I always go for a mix. What I find is the following – and for the sake of clarity I have so labelled each with my opinion:

    1. a sense of entitlement that negates experience over youth. (Bad)
    2. a high propensity to work hard. (Good)
    3. a lack of ability to tell hard work from smart work. (Bad)
    4. a higher profile for risk taking (Good)

    That said – there are faults enough on all sides. Traditional and mature businesses tend to err towards less risk and therefore listen less to the “newbies”.

    As MsP stated. Smaller sizes work better.



  5. Sarah K. Ellis

    Thanks for the great comments, MsP & TOD.

    I think you are both absolutely right in that these challenges aren’t generation specific, but how the current newcomers to the workforce are going to respond to those challenges is what I believe might be.

    To be clear, I’m not advocating that overly-impatient job-hopping Millennials are right in doing so or could stand to suffer a little if for nothing other than to appreciate it when the find a company who gets it right one day.

    But the statistics show Gen Y’s tolerance for putting up with adversity they deem as unnecessary (i.e. bureaucracy in Corporate America) is low.

    I think that in generations prior it may have been a little higher, especially in times when loyalty to a company was the status quo, aka for Baby Boomers.

    And I think even for those Gen X’ers like MsP who faced the same challenges in companies who didn’t focus enough on their needs to retain them long-term, the impact of their exit to any industry in which that occurred was much lower simply due to the smaller size of that generation, and the overwhelming number of highly valued lifetime Boomers still squarely in the job market.

    As Gen Y quickly takes over the role as the largest demographic in the work force paired with a low tolerance for what has become the norm, what I’m proposing is that for the first time it’s possible the result of corporations’ apathy toward retention may finally have a noticeable impact.

    Curious to hear if you agree, TOD. 🙂

  6. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    Speaking as an aging boomer (for a small fee I will reveal my age in public) I can assure you that these tensions exist no matter which age group you speak with. As having been a victim earlier in my career of agism – ie being categorized as too old and not validated with my (younger) peers – I can tell you its a 2 way street.

    There are probably legions of companies who pay lip service to the needs of this (and other sectors) of the workforce. There are a number of times I have seen inside corporations attention given for purely selfish reasons – make the mid to top execs feel good. Then they return to their ivory tower like ways. And yes these folks do know who they are!

    But Sarah’s point is absolutely spot on. Let’s move beyond that and ask ourselves the natural follow on question: “What will be the right way to harness this sentiment for good.”

    In my view what I have seen work has been mentor ship type programs. It wont work for everyone – but I believe that pairing younger/newer staffers with experienced industry and company vets works well. The cross fertilization is a double win for the organization.

    Just remember – nothing invigorates an old dog like a young dog.


  7. MsP

    This is a very nice reflection on how to keep top talent, although, I think it applies to all generations. I recall the same things being said about my generation (X by the way) back in the Rah Rah 90’s. Fast forward and approaching the big 4-0, I am still bored and unmotivated by my peers in middle management. So, realize this my Gen-Y/Millenial friends, you’re not alone in your search for excellence – it is a never ending journey!


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