Experiential learning is the process of learning through experience. It’s been around since about 350 B.C. when Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics, “for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” The concept of experiential learning is synonymous with other forms of active learning such as hands-on learning, adventure learning or cooperative learning. Active learning differs significantly from passive or didactic learning, and it’s the preferred method today, especially among millennials and Generation Z.
Several large-scale studies have shown that millennials are hungry for hands-on experience. In Deloitte’s 2016 millennial study, they collected the views of nearly 7,700 millennials working full-time and representing 29 countries. Forty-four percent of millennials (23 million people) say if given the choice, they would like to leave their current employers in the next two years, and two-thirds (35 million people) expect to leave by 2020. A perceived lack of leadership skill development and feelings of being overlooked are compounded by larger issues around work-life balance, the desire for flexibility and a conflict of values. For employers, this exodus of talent will be a major issue moving forward.
As a professor for MBA students (mostly millennials), one exercise that we do early in the semester assesses their job satisfaction motivators. Since no job is perfect, we often make trade-offs: one job may pay well, but provide limited opportunities for advancement; another may offer work we enjoy, but have poor benefits. Out of 21 job factors, I ask them to rank-order their top five attributes. In over 100 students, career development and advancement opportunities consistently rank in the top five.
The need for hands-on experience shows in other areas as well. Compared to older generations, millennials tend to donate, volunteer, campaign and be more actively engaged with social, environmental, or political affairs more often. At a recent conference, I met Kathy, CEO of an upstart software company based in San Francisco. Her 12 employees are all millennials. She shared with me that after a week of travel, she returned to the office one Friday afternoon to find the entire staff gone. After a few text messages, she learned that they collectively decided to leave work early to donate blood. Of course, she couldn’t be upset at this behavior. It simply highlights the importance of social responsibility in their lives and their need to give back. Not surprisingly, many millennials seek companies that demonstrate corporate social responsibility as well.
Older workers have complained about young people for generations, and in that regard, millennials aren’t any different than others. But what is different is that millennials’ unique expectations (like those for emotional support, coaching, feedback and mentoring relationships) are deeply experiential. Because of these needs, all organizations should encourage coaching, feedback and mentoring. Coaching brings everything together. It converts learning into performance, builds continuity into a person’s job and shows how it is relevant to the organization’s success. Among millennials, over 80 percent are satisfied with this aspect of their working lives. Those intending to stay with their organization for more than five years are twice as likely to have a mentor than not. In the millennials’ ideal workweek, there would be significantly more time devoted to coaching and mentoring, to the discussion of new ideas and ways of working, and on the development of their leadership skills.
The unique preferences, attitudes and practices of millennials (and Gen Z behind them) present both change and opportunity for the future of work. For training professionals, this is good news. More programs and focus on opportunities for hands-on experience will bode well for a global workplace that continues to grow more diverse every day.