A ‘Pinch Point’ in the Leadership Development Pipeline: Doubling-Down on Millennials

pinch pointTwo values have come to define the millennial professional: the interest in continuous learning and career advancement, and the desire for meaningful, purposeful work.

By Rabbi David M. Kessel

A study released a few months ago reported that Millennials (professionals in their 20s and 30s) are now the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. The Jewish community is raising the question of how to create a more vibrant ‘leadership pipeline,’ where younger professionals are groomed and prepared to meet the institutional challenges and complexities of the 21st century. The relative lack of focus on training for Millennials is creating a ‘pinch point’ in this pipeline, preventing career progression for young professionals within the Jewish community and discouraging new talent from considering employment in the sector.

Over the next five years, approximately 72 million Millennials will be working, as compared to less than 40 million Baby Boomers (60s and 70s) and 50 million Gen Xers (40s and 50s). As the Baby Boomers continue to retire – and their accrued experience and institutional knowledge transition out from the workforce – the need for cultivating Millennials leaders becomes even more urgent.

Recognizing that Millennials constitute the majority of the professional workforce – and that the average age within this cohort is 23 – steps taken to support their development as leaders would seem to be a prudent communal retention strategy. Yet, very few training programs targeted to this young and diverse generation are offered within the Jewish community today.

Two values have come to define the millennial professional: the interest in continuous learning and career advancement, and the desire for meaningful, purposeful work. The Jewish community should be ideally suited to meet both of these needs, and the most talented Millennials should be flocking to our organizations. But they’re not.

As the best-educated generation ever to enter the workforce, Millennials have high expectations for themselves and their employers. Just starting out in their careers, they are hungry for leadership opportunities, and eager both to utilize their existing skills and to develop new ones. The 2015 Deloitte Millennial Survey of nearly 8,000 professionals across 29 countries found that, ‘Millennials place far greater emphasis on employee wellbeing … growth and development’ as compared to other perks and benefits. The study also showed that 60% of Millennials reported a ‘sense of purpose’ as a reason for choosing their current jobs.

When Millennials look for jobs, they prioritize those employers that offer the most robust training and the most impactful mission statements. They seek organizations that invest in their skills and their future, making a difference in their lives and in the world.

Existing professional development efforts are insufficient. The cross-sector study on Millennials referenced above showed that 64% felt unprepared for leadership roles. The report ultimately concluded that, ‘teaching Millennials to lead is the key to talent acquisition, employee engagement and retention.’ With regard specifically to Jewish organizations, Shira Liff-Grieff’s 2009 study of young professionals found that most expressed a ‘disproportionately low level of job satisfaction in the area of professional growth.’

Why isn’t professional development the number-one Jewish communal priority? In his recent eJP post, Dr. Hal Lewis shares a thoughtful and comprehensive answer to this question. Ultimately, the community considers staff development a ‘nice-to-have’ rather than a ‘must-have,’ and the obstacles to change read like a laundry list of excuses and rationalizations, well-rehearsed for the better part of the past three decades.

Two generations removed from the Holocaust and founding of the State of Israel, Millennials aren’t necessarily drawn to Jewish communal leadership for the same reasons as Boomers or Gen Xers. Whereas many from prior generations have built their entire careers in the Jewish sector, Millennials tend to be job hoppers. The strong desire for professional development and career advancement motivates movement between jobs, and oftentimes between sectors as well.

The many job openings available as Boomers retire and organizations ramp-up hiring during the economy recovery – coupled with the exponential growth of the Jewish start-up sector – create an urgent need for the best and brightest millennial talent. In order to recruit, retain and maximize that talent, professional development is critical.

From 2008-13, BBYO experimented with a program to train and support 35 early-career professionals in three cohorts. The Professional Development Institute (PDI) offered an MBA as well as a Certificate or Master’s in Jewish Education with an eye toward cultivating a top cadre of emerging Millennial leaders for the Jewish community. PDI had many components – including mentoring and applied learning – and provides a helpful case study of successful engagement and training of high-potential Millennials.

As a result of PDI and other strategic opportunities for professional growth, BBYO has strengthened its retention of high-performers, with several Millennials now celebrating 5- and 10-year work anniversaries. They stay because they love the mission, they are challenged to develop new skills and competencies and they tangibly see how their work makes a difference.

PDI represents one substantive step in building a pipeline of trained young professionals across the community. Most PDI graduates have gone on to work at other Jewish organizations, often selecting employers who also invest in their development. Subsequently, the Talent Alliance recently launched – a strategic partnership between Hillel International, Moishe House and BBYO, creating career paths and professional opportunities seamlessly across all three agencies. A collaborative discussion around training is a logical next step.

Now is the time to understand best practices in developing Millennials from within the Jewish community and beyond. And now is the time for action, as our communal endeavors will only succeed to the extent that the millennial generation is on-board and ready to take the reins of leadership.

Rabbi David M. Kessel, Chief Program Officer at BBYO, is studying professional development for Millennials as a recruitment and retention strategy through the Executive Doctoral Program at the Davidson School of Jewish Education/JTS.