Thursday, April 26, 2018
Business

Publix among companies challenged to retain millennial workers

For years, Publix Super Markets captured accolade after accolade for being one of the best places to work in the United States.

After all, the Lakeland-based grocery chain makes a contribution to each employee's retirement account in the form of Publix stock every year. With more than 177,000 employees in six states, nearly 10,000 have worked for the company for 20 years or more, which is significant for a company of its size. Publix keeps a running, competitive list of the top 200 employees with at least 40 years logged with the company.

But like many other companies, Publix is struggling to come up with new ways to keep the millennial generation engaged — and employed for the longer term.

"Millennials lived through the economic crisis in 2007 and beyond. They saw their parents and other family members get laid off, so their perception of loyalty is very different," said Moez Limayem, dean of the University of South Florida's Muma College of Business. "They expect companies to keep them engaged, and if they're not getting that, they'll leave."

Take Chris Froyd, a 28-year-old graphic designer who started working at Publix part time when he was in high school in his hometown of New Port Richey. Froyd quit the company last year and now works as a designer at a nonprofit blood bank in Gainesville. He's already back in school to get another degree to be a videographer in his spare time.

"Staying at Publix would have been the easiest thing I could do with my life," Froyd said. "It would have been a cop-out. I would have made a decent salary, but it would have been too easy. I wanted to try something else."

Froyd said he was in the pipeline to become an assistant manager if he stuck around. He was working behind the customer service desk during his last year with the company at a Publix in Gainesville.

"It's easy to get caught up in the Publix lifestyle because the benefits are good," Froyd said. "But I think a lot of people my age just don't want to settle. They want to keep moving around instead of working hard to be good at just one thing."

Millennials, the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s, will make up the majority of the workforce in the United States for the first time this year. Also known as Generation Y, they're expected to surpass the baby boomers as the nation's largest living generation this year, too, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. And unlike the generations that came before them, they've developed a reputation for not wanting to stay put.

The average American worker age 55 to 64 stays at his or her job more than three times as long as workers from 25 to 34 years old, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That younger category bounces from job to job every three years.

Publix declined to comment on its employee retention rate. Roughly 47 percent of its part-time and full-time workforce is under the age of 30. The grocery chain is an employee-owned company.

However, spokesman Brian West said, "We're fortunate to have more young people applying for jobs than we have positions available."

Publix employs a lot of younger people on a temporary basis while they're in school, noted B. Wayne Rockmore, a professor at the University of Central Florida's College of Business Administration. "The challenge will be finding ways to bring them back into the organization once they've graduated," he said. "Like a lot of other old school corporations, they need to start looking at how they can structurally reorganize to make job opportunities more enticing to younger people."

More than 50 percent of hiring managers said it's difficult to find and retain millennial workers, according to a 2015 study by UpWork, an online career networking platform. Only 14 percent of those surveyed said it was easy.

A recent study by Bentley University's Center for Women and Business showed that millennial men and women are looking for workplaces that can accommodate their personal values. They're more likely to start their own companies or take on the risk of joining a startup than conform to a corporate culture they don't believe in.

"But the reality of the economy has forced many of them to find work with established companies," Rockmore said.

The work-life balance is more of a "blend" with this generation, too, which is more plugged into technology than any that came before it

This year, Publix came under fire when a 19-year-old employee from Tallahassee started an online petition to get the supermarket chain to allow employees to have facial hair. The story got national attention from media outlets, the hashtag #FreeTheBeard went viral, and the petition collected more than 11,000 signatures. But Publix's policy hasn't changed.

Publix's competitors, like Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's, offer a more lax and hip environment for employees in its grocery stores. Publix GreenWise Markets, the company's alternative brand to its trendy competitors, allows workers to have beards.

"Companies can't hire millennials just to fill one hole and expect them to be happy," Rockmore said. "That's how things have to change. Career development is important to them, and with the amount of information out there at their fingertips, if they're not happy, they'll find another opportunity and be gone."

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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