The Engineering Workforce: Gearing for the Digital Natives

digital native

There are many changes brewing for engineering organizations. For one, with an impending wave of baby boomers retiring in the near future, engineering organizations are going to experience a serious “brain drain” at the top of the engineering department’s food chain.  Over the next 20 years, 10,000 baby boomers will retire every day, leaving a gapping hole at the top of engineering departments worldwide as engineering executives, directors and managers will leave their posts and start focusing on more pressing concerns, such as lowering their golf handicaps.

As these seasoned engineering veterans walk out the door, they take with them a tremendously valuable amount of knowledge, corporate know-how, and experience, which, quite frankly, is nearly impossible to replace.  As this reality takes hold, manufacturing organizations must look to future generations of engineers to one day fill these important posts and hopefully drive the future of their engineering efforts.

The reality, however, is that these younger generations of workers are vastly different from the previous generations. They work differently, think differently, and view the world differently than the previous generations of workers. Often referred to as “digital natives,” this generation was born after the advent of digital technology. They have never lived in a world without the Internet, cell phones, and mobile computing devices.

Let’s take a look at some of the characteristics of these “digital natives” to better understand how the workplace must evolve to best leverage their strengths while mitigating the chances of ensuing culture clashes between them and older engineers, often referred to as “digital immigrants.”

Highly influenced by technology. These natural multi-taskers seamlessly switch between their social and professional lives; thrive on instant, fluid communication; want constant access to the web; and are faster, more intuitive learners who are highly adaptable to change.

Change jobs frequently. Studies show that this generation will hold five to seven jobs before retirement. Digital natives often prefer to work as contractors rather than employees and view work stability as less important than stimulation and satisfaction.

Like to keep it casual. This generation dislikes bureaucracy, paperwork, and formalities. They have different views of corporate hierarchy and authority; don’t recognize the lines of proprietary between people of different ages, social statuses and positions of power. Prefer to work intermittently and remotely (coffee chops, cafes, home) versus in cubicles.

Believe transparency yields trust. Digital natives live their lives publically through social media and value knowledge sharing and expect the same of companies, both as an employee and customer.

The Google effect. Though they excel at researching, managing and assimilating vast quantities of data, the aforementioned cognitive bias (Google effect) leads them to work less on retaining information because they can just “Google” it.

Be social. Use social media (Facebook, Twitter, youTube) and various other digital technologies (smartphones, tablets, etc.) on a daily basis. They are also very peer-oriented and more socially conscious and responsive to intrinsic motivations as a result of involvement with social networks.

Just email it. This group prefers email as opposed to the phone as a means of communication, which facilitates multi-tasking and establishes a permanent record of communications. Perhaps as a result, this generation is less prepared to write in a professional manner.

Next week we’ll talk about how organizations can adapt the workplace to best leverage the unique skill sets of digital natives as well as how they can prevent culture clashes between this group and the older generation tasked with preparing them for leadership roles in the future.

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