Millennials choose enterprise IT -- really!

Millennials forgo startups to work in corporate IT.

As a millennial entering the workforce, Amy Jackson had an enviable array of experiences under her belt.

While earning multiple degrees from Michigan State University, Jackson worked as an intern in the operations department of a large insurance company, helping to identify how technology could improve day-to-day business processes. She spent time at a large automaker, charged with similar responsibilities, and she delved into online search and Web technologies while interning at small, 25-person digital marketing shop.

Exposure to IT life in both large and small organizations pointed Jackson toward the track she wanted to take after graduating with a B.A. in marketing, a B.S. in retailing and a minor in IT management. While the fast-moving pace and camaraderie of a small, youthful culture held appeal, Jackson opted instead for a well-defined career path at a traditional company. Her reasoning? That route would provide the broadest exposure across both technology and the business.

"Based on my internship experience, going with a large corporation was something I wanted to do right out of the gate," says Jackson, 27, who took a service specialist position within IT at Dow Chemical upon graduation, and now, five years later, serves as a business analyst there. "I felt it could give me the most breadth of experiences in a shorter period of time, and there was so much room to grow."

Some might find it surprising than an IT up-and-comer like Jackson was drawn in by such old-school trappings as a clear career path, mentoring by seasoned leaders or formalized training programs. These were often sought-after benefits for past generations of IT professionals, but millennials' affinity for better work/life balance and indifference to the corporate hierarchy seem better aligned with the free-wheeling atmosphere of a high-tech startup.

No doubt, the free food and drink, dog-friendly workspaces and on-site workout facilities synonymous with high-tech startup life are highly seductive to millennial IT job seekers. But even all-night coding bashes, direct access to the executive brain trust and the ability to wear multiple hats aren't enough carrot for some twenty-something IT workers, who prefer the stability and structure of an established organization over a startup's continuous upheaval.

"A traditional company lays out its organizational and hierarchical structure so the person coming in has a pretty defined path and knows the roles, responsibilities and positions that can be achieved within the organization," says Marshall Oldham, director of recruiting for TEKsystems, a provider of IT staffing and talent management services. "If you're the type of person who likes to have some clarity and vision in terms of what it takes to move up, then it's the right way to go."

By the same token, recent grads who are attracted to constant change or feel a need to blaze their own trail are prime candidates for startup life. "Startups work well for those people who don't mind juggling responsibilities and who find uncertainty exciting as opposed to causing them stress and anxiety," Oldham says. "It boils down to an individual decision, and it's different for everyone."

Wide-ranging responsibilities

For Jackson, Dow Chemical (one of Computerworld's Best Places to Work in IT) presented the opportunity to gain global exposure and learn the ropes of a wide-ranging business. Currently immersed on a team of 12 IT and business specialists located in different countries, Jackson has had to hone her communications skills and learn how to collaborate and manage projects with colleagues spread across different time zones.

Not only has Jackson gained exposure to technology deployments in different geographic areas, she's also had a crash course in the operations of the various functional areas of Dow's business. Another benefit of working for an established behemoth: Her team is able to plan and implement the various business strategies within the context of a mature IT infrastructure. "I've learned so much about the technology needs of people whether they are in finance or the supply chain and how they are different across the business," she explains. "Maybe there's not as much focus on starting from square one, but you have the opportunity to do continuous improvement."

Audra Hovick, 29, came to General Mills as a programmer/analyst right out of college in 2007, a virtual hire plucked from Waldorf College, a small private institution in Iowa. Part of the attraction was familiarity with a brand she cherished her whole life (General Mills likewise is a Best Place to Work designee), but there was also the opportunity to take part in the packaged food giant's rotational program, which allowed her to move among various positions within IT.

During her tenure, Hovick has held five positions at General Mills, including a business analyst role in supply chain operations, a stint in finance working on an international accounts payable rollout and program management posts supporting both IT and sales and marketing. "As I've ramped up knowledge of what we do at General Mills, how IT works and what I'm good at, I've been able to quickly transition into other roles," Hovick says. "In seven years, I've gotten exposure to the broad spectrum of what the company does, and there is so much more."

Another great aspect of a large-company experience is the ability to work with multiple generations, not just millennial peers, which tends to be the makeup of smaller startups, Hovick says. "The age diversity is really cool here," she says. "You get to work with people who have been here for a really long time, and they see value learning from young leaders as well."

Personal development a priority

A mature organization also means well-established and well-conceived programs, particularly those associated with formalized training and internships, according to Leo Timmons, IT director, Application Development at General Mills. IT department heads are trained to find the right sponsors and managers for incoming interns, for example, and personal development is prioritized at every level, he says.

Fostering knowledge and encouraging use of state-of-the-art tools and technologies is another big focus for General Mills' IT group -- one that's of great appeal to incoming IT professionals, Timmons says. "We may be a traditional type of company, but there is a huge opportunity in IT," he says, adding that the 100 developers on his team take part in regular code camps and actively present on new skills like JavaScript and HTML5 to keep their peers up to date. "In application development, everyone wants to work with the newest tools," he explains. "With technology moving so fast, we can offer young developers the opportunity to work with current tools, which is really exciting."

Kumar Kode, a data visualization and reporting specialist at Johnsonville Sausage (also on the 2014 Best Places list), loves how the Midwest food company empowers IT employees to embrace the latest technologies. He also relishes how Johnsonville places a heavy emphasis on continuous learning and mentoring through a variety of programs and methods, from cross-functional teams and on-demand learning resources to a continuing education program that provides financial assistance to employees.

Kode, 26, has benefitted from some of those options and says many of his millennial friends involved in startups haven't been so lucky. "I've sensed frustration in some of my friends who work in New York or Silicon Valley startup companies that they are left to their own guidance and that there's no direction," he says. "Here, there is more leadership and direction from higher management."

Having a well-mapped career path was one of the primary appeals of taking an IT position at General Electric, according to Chris Pethan, 26, an IT program manager in the company's Digital Energy Division.

As part of his participation in GE's well-known IT Leadership Program, Pethan logged four rotations in four cities across the globe, and in the subsequent four years, he has worked aggressively on getting regular two-year promotions. "I like the fact that you have the building blocks of your career and if you do your job well, this is the path laid out for you," he says. "You don't have that in a startup -- maybe you can make your goals faster, but there's potentially more risk."

Work/life balance goes corporate

Startups would appear to have a leg up in offering a flexible and fun workplace, but even that is changing as many of the largest companies evolve their cultures to attract new IT workers, be they millennials or older folks. "You see a lot of larger companies adopting new practices not so much geared to satisfying millennials as it is a war for IT talent," notes TEKsystems' Oldham. "Companies are being forced to be a little more flexible in terms of work/life balance."

Kode says you can already see that happening at Johnsonville, where workers now have the OK to work from home on occasion, can log flexible hours and are even provided snack food to keep them fueled during intense strategy or programming sessions. "Management is pretty liberal as long as you don't abuse it," Kode says. "I can leave early as long as I make sure what I'm working on is getting done. I don't have to work in my cube -- sometimes I sit on the lawn outside and no one questions me."

Johnsonville's flexible work policies are in keeping with a recent study on millennials in the workforce from PwC, which found that 64% of millennials want the opportunity to occasionally work from home. Sixty-six percent of the participants said they'd like the option to shift their work hours as well.

The General Mills campus where Hovick works in Golden Valley, Minn., has lots of the trappings of a startup, including on-site daycare, a fitness center, a mini shopping center, and of course, the all-important Caribou Coffee shop. Outside of helping her meet her career goals, however, Hovick most values General Mills' encouragement of and support for volunteerism and community service -- something that's a priority for Hovick and many of her millennial counterparts.

With a thumbs up from her IT management team, Hovick volunteers regularly during the workday, taking a few hours off to read to elementary school kids or to tend to the company's Giving Garden, which has donated thousands of pounds of fresh produce to local shelters and food banks.

"We have managers and leadership dedicated to making sure we volunteer," Hovick says. "One of my values is living for your neighbor. Having that front and center when choosing a company to work for made it an easy choice to join General Mills. I'd give up a lot of stuff to align with a company that does good for the community."

Jackson, too, revels in Dow's commitment to fostering employees' community service efforts. Working for a big company, she's been able to participate in United Way drives and take some time off to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.

Jackson also likes that, unlike a startup, a big company can offer lots of options to accommodate life changes. Whether it's a desire for a new position or a new locale, Dow has worked with Jackson to make sure her needs are met.

"I've been ready for a career change in the past, and what I found surprising in a nice way was that Dow wanted to work with me on that," says Jackson, who recently relocated with the company from Michigan to Philadelphia. "I've spent a long time at this company, compared to a lot of my friends, but I haven't stopped growing. As long as I have the opportunity to grow, gain new experiences and new skill sets, I'm here to stay."

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