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Canada's Top Employers for Young People: What it takes to successfully engage young employees

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When it comes to engaging the younger generation of employees, some nonprofits are really on the ball. From mentorship and learning development opportunities to a culture that appreciates life-work balance, these organizations have found meaningful ways to attract, connect with and retain younger staff. It’s no wonder that some were recently chosen as Canada's Top Employers for Young People, an editorial competition that recognizes employers for the workplaces and programs they offer employees starting their careers. We spoke with four nonprofits who were recognized on that list to find out what they are doing to earn them such impressive accolades and what we can learn from their approach.

What are they doing right?

Take winner Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Canada’s largest children’s rehabilitation hospital focused on improving the lives of kids with disabilities. “The work we do is incredibly attractive to potential employees in general but very attractive to young people,” says president and CEO, Julia Hanigsberg who adds the hospital has an inherent leg-up thanks to their embedded mission and vision: to create a world of possibility for kids with disability. “We ask them [employees] to join this world of possibilities,” she explains. “I think for young workers in particular, there is a strong desire to feel they are making significant impact and broad social impact; if we look at the population that we serve, our ability to draw a clear line to making real impact on lives is easy for us to do.”

What’s more, as a teaching hospital, it’s common for Holland Bloorview to be filled with energetic students, which only feeds the organization’s focus on career growth; employees are reminded they won’t be stuck in one place. That sense of constant learning and growing is integral to the hospital’s culture – and allure. From that unique culture emanates a number of different programs especially designed for young people. There’s career coaching, for example, by staff who help employees through career trajectory planning. “Personal development is very important,” says Hanigsberg of the value-add. There’s also tuition assistance programs that help employees who want to pursue certificates or degrees related to their career goals. There are paid educational days – learning and develop activities, conferences, workshops. “Learning and development over the course of one’s career is inherently valuable to us and to all our employees.”

For Tammy Walker, general manager of human resources at YMCA of Greater Toronto, the charity’s greatest attraction to young employees is the fact that they’re such a youth-driven, program-based organization with a dedicated youth strategy. “Our vision is to create the healthiest community for young people, it’s a big vision,” she says.

They also offer training and development opportunities. For instance, a two-day and overnight staff orientation at a special location allows new recruits to engage with senior leaders and become better acquainted with the organization. There’s something special about this place that holds onto people, that keeps them committed, says Walker. She shares that the YMCA Toronto summer camp hires 1,000 staff, and many end up continuing to work with YMCA during the school year. “They became lifers,” she says of the large number of senior staff who started that way. “It’s quite unique.” They also offer programs that allow young people to work with community members their age and a youth leadership development program, which often has the effect of keeping them involved in the organization and its mission for years to come.

The University of British Columbia finds that young people are attracted the diverse and unique roles and opportunities they offer, such as working on a farm, in gardens, at a museum, or in a sports facility. Having the chance to work with or alongside some of the world's best researchers and innovators can certainly keep them engaged and interested. The opportunities to work with university-age students can also help. Formal recognition opportunities such as the President's Staff Award Emerging Leader category and free one-on-one professional coaching are a boon, as is the access to one of the largest intramurals programs in Canada. But the pedestrian and bicycle-friendly campus, relaxed work atmosphere and telecommuting options don’t hurt either, says Catherine Pitman, UBC's workplace engagement specialist.

The Saskatchewan Abilities Council delivers recreational, rehabilitation, and vocational programs to people with disabilities throughout the province. And it offers a multitude of employment opportunities for young people too including with Camp Easter Seal, a recreational program that provides a fun and barrier-free experience to all campers. A lot of young individuals start their careers at the Camp – which typically sees around 450 staff members every summer, says human resources manager, Kirk Heidecker. The breadth of opportunities that the organization offers youth also include educational assistance, practicum placements and training sessions.

Ideas, skills and enthusiasm

Of course, engaging youth is seen as mutually beneficial to forward-thinking organizations. "Young people bring a different level of experience and skills which allows the Council to move forward with innovations for people living with varying abilities; we view this as an opportunity to grow", says Heidecker. Walker agrees and suggests it also comes down to enthusiasm, a fresh outlook and ideas. She says she learns so much from the young staff and their new ideas. “They’re excited about learning,” she says, adding the YMCA of Toronto has an unusually low turnover rate – and many who do leave eventually come back.

For Holland Bloorview, the fact that young people, as new graduates, bring the latest in learning and evidence-based practice is significant. “We live in an increasingly digital and tech-enhanced age and our younger employees bring that comfort more easily with them to the workplace – and so can provide us with those skills more organically than some other employees,” says Hanigsberg. Besides, she adds, as a hospital that treats young people there is a real benefit of having young people among employees. “They’re role models for those kids,” she says.

Meeting the challenges

Still, engagement is not always an easy thing. For one thing, offers Pitman, “Young people are unlikely to stay in a job for a long period of time, and therefore voluntary turnover for younger employees tends to be higher than employees in other age categories.” It’s a typical story for many organizations. But thanks to its large and diverse employment landscape that allows young people to explore many different roles all in the same place, UBC can provide itchy feet with a reason to stick around.

Also, many young people at organizations are enjoying their very first job experience and are not always accustomed to policies and procedures of full-time office settings, says Walker. “We pride ourselves with working with young people to teach them those skills.” They also get to participate in board meetings and AGMs and are offered international experiences to ensure they not only feel integral to the organisation but are given the mentorship to succeed. “It’s important to provide them with the positive first experience; it can have lasting impact.”

Holland Bloorview is able to rise above some of their challenges working with fresh faces with a strong value proposition, says Hanigsberg. Providing 450 student placements and internships helps, creating a pipeline of younger employees who get to know them as a potential employer. Knowing they can work in a culture that has family friendliness built in is impactful too — a daycare, on-site gym to name but a few offerings.

What does this mean for your organization?

So what can other nonprofits do to ensure they effectively attract, engage and satisfy the younger employees? "A couple of the things you may want to consider are having an open and positive work environment and also looking at different ways of fostering work-life balance,” offers Heidecker. Delivering programs that help young people carve a trajectory for their career within their chosen field could make a big difference to engagement , says Hanigsberg, adding nonprofits working on a smaller scale can run these type of initiatives too. It’s simply about creating opportunities for career growth that are attractive to young people who often view their careers as multi-faceted.

Don’t forget about effectively listening to the needs of prospective young employees, says Walker. And articulating and communicating your value in a way and medium that finds young people where they are. “Young people want to know what we do to contribute in a positive way,” she says. So whether through newsletters or social media, they ensure that message is clear. Speak with young employees honestly and positively in a way that matters to them, adds Hanigsberg, “There is nothing more attractive than really being wanted and being able to convey that in a really authentic way is important to be able to grab that terrific pool of talent that’s out there."

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at: info@ellecommunications.ca.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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