Millennials in the Lab

Ducks and water. Birds and sky. Squirrels and trees. Some things just fit their environments perfectly. Similarly, with their technological savvy, millennials could be considered the perfect fit for the laboratory, according to the lab managers we spoke with.

By

A Fit for the Future

“In the lab, I see a great opportunity for millennials,” says Josephine Longoria, director of the Guadalupe- Blanco River Authority’s (GBRA) Regional Laboratory (Seguin, TX). “The reason I say that is because we’re moving into a 21st-century mentality with respect to technology and I think millennials thrive on that. In my line of work, we’re currently updating our LIMS and the ideas [millennials] come up with are just incredible.”

Employment of millennials, defined as those born between 1980 and the early 2000s, has been a major trend in the workforce as they replace retiring baby boomers, and much has been written about the myths surrounding them, such as their sense of entitlement, lack of loyalty, and desire that their jobs be more than just a source of income. Most of the hundreds of articles on the Web that focus on millennials suggest these stereotypes are just that, stereotypes, and it all comes down to properly managing this generation to get the most out of them.

Clinical lab supervisor Brandy Blackburn agrees, pointing out that, while there are some commonalities in most millennials, staff members are still individuals and have their own strengths and weaknesses that don’t always line up with the main pros and cons of their age group. However, in managing millennials in her lab, she’s seen a few similarities across this age range.

“They are very flexible and can switch tasks easily,” Blackburn says, describing one of the pros she has seen in her millennial-aged staff. “They are more willing to change their hours to accommodate business needs than are workers from other generations.” However, she adds that their desire for flexibility can be an issue. “They want a lot of flexibility from their employers with regard to scheduling, which is an issue in a clinical lab where turnaround time is critical.”

Blackburn agrees with Longoria that millennials’ comfort with technology and automation is an asset in the lab, along with their communication and teamwork skills, their easy accommodation of change, and their tolerance of diversity in the workplace. Another positive, which can also be a negative, however, is millennials’ directness.

“If they do not understand something, they will ask,” Blackburn says. “[But] they will question a superior in the same way they will question a peer.”

Managing millennials

Longoria and Blackburn say there are some things they do differently with millennials, but as far as managing this particular group is concerned, overall their management style is pretty similar for all groups in their labs. Longoria’s organization took proactive steps to prepare for the expected retirement of baby boomers in her lab, putting management through generational training because they knew many of the vacancies would be filled by millennials.

“Understanding what’s important to them is critical for continued success,” she says, adding that her lab has recently had a second batch of employees retire, meaning even more millennials are expected to come on board. “I’ve been doing what I’m doing for 21 years, so I would be considered a Gen Xer, but I’m kind of in the middle, where I understand baby boomers but I also understand the millennial thought process. I think I have a great advantage because I have a lot of nieces and nephews who are the same age as some of these millennials.”

She adds that taking the time to listen to millennials is important, along with providing feedback and recognition, to get the best work out of them. For example, her lab has a token program where employees who do a particularly great job receive a token to reward that effort.

“I think the program has been very helpful for that generation, whereas it may offend someone of the baby boomer era or the greatest generation era,” Longoria explains. “That might be offensive to them because older workers see [going above and beyond] as part of their job. I’m very careful, conscientious and aware.”

In her experience with millennials, Blackburn, a Gen Xer like Longoria, has also noticed that they tend to require more positive reinforcement than do workers of other generations.

“There are some differences in the way I approach directing millennials versus other generations,” she says. “Millennials need more encouragement but less direction. They don't seem as worried about job security as other generations, likely because many of them continue to be supported by their parents until their late 20s.”

Connecting with staff on an individual level is something Longoria believes is important when managing all employees, not just millennials.

“Most managers are part-time psychologists,” she explains. “I hate to say that but it’s true. You have to connect with people. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be best friends with everybody and go and hang out every night, but connecting with them on an authentic level is extremely important. I truly think everyone has something in common.”

In her case, Longoria’s love of music is something that helps her connect with staff members of all ages, because her taste is so varied.

“I connect with pretty much all my staff because of music,” she says, adding that the team concept her lab uses is a good way to integrate all kinds of diversity in the workplace. “In a team, you include all the team members, no matter what generation they are in and no matter what’s important to them. You have to respect the differences. Accepting diverse needs, wants and expectations is pretty challenging, but if you understand that at the beginning it’s not so painful in the end. I think just having a positive attitude and putting positive energy toward any subject matter or goal is critical.”

Addressing the cons

As far as some of the cons of managing millennials go, Blackburn has found that they can tend to share too many personal details, and although they are skilled at using technology, “they tend to have very little interest in the programming or mechanical aspects behind it.” She adds that they don’t seem to have the same kind of loyalty to their employers as do workers of previous generations. However, she doesn’t see these flaws as a total disaster for the lab.

“I don't think that there is a problem with the millennials; I think the problem is how to integrate millennials with other generations,” she says. “I am sure it is an issue faced every ten or so years when a new generation is introduced into the workforce. There is no right or wrong; there is just different.”

One of the key stereotypes about millennials is that they are lazy and entitled, but while they can see where that view comes from, neither Blackburn nor Longoria completely agrees with it. Blackburn says she believes that impression of entitlement comes from millennials having grown up in a healthy economy, being raised by so-called helicopter parents and being used to “getting what they want and getting it quickly.”

“They are not used to limits or to being told ‘no,’” Blackburn adds. “They cannot understand why everyone cannot be promoted or why they can’t make up their own schedules.”

As for millennials being branded as lazy, Blackburn says that comes from a misunderstanding as well, since in her experience millennials “just seek easier ways of getting things done.”

Longoria admits that she did have an issue with that perception of entitlement when she first started working with millennials, until she gained more understanding through generational training.

“I was not used to people expecting something when they haven’t proven themselves,” she says. “I’m from a generation where you prove yourself and then you expect a reward. When somebody today graduates with a degree, that degree says a lot more to them than it does to somebody who has experience and a degree. It’s very difficult for me to advance workers when they haven’t proven themselves. I’m still very big on performance. Degrees are great—a master’s degree is even better—but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be the greatest employees.”

Fit for the future lab

With continuing advancements in lab technology, including mobile access where lab technicians can check up on lab instruments from home, and an increased focus on efficiency and lean processes, millennials seem perfectly positioned for the lab of the future.

“They embrace technology and want to use it whenever they can, and they like to be creative and discover how to simplify a task using technology,” Blackburn explains. “They don't have all the answers, but they sure know where to find them.”

Longoria adds that millennials have had a hand in altering the landscape at her lab, but the manager’s role is still important in making the most of their ideas.

“Lab managers have a lot more influence than they think. The face of the lab has changed in the 13 years I’ve been here at GBRA and I think millennials have a lot to do with that,” she says. “There are just a lot of different thought processes. Millennials love technology, which the laboratory is in dire need of. We’re potentially moving from tower computers to tablets. We’re doing remote access to our equipment from home, so that way, if you want a day off on Friday but you can check it from home, you can do that now. People like me, we’re more hands on. It’s kind of like the Kindle versus a paper book. It’s a good transition that the world of laboratories is going into. It’s a really good fit for me, personally.”

She adds that lab managers shouldn’t view any flaws in the millennial generation as obstacles or challenges if they want to maximize the potential of those employees.

“Think of it as a skill set and a way to maneuver, instead of something you’ve got to get over,” she advises other lab managers. “For anybody who is in my position, that’s the first step of really being successful with the new generation. Just let them know that you appreciate them the way they are—you’re not going to try to change them, but, on the other hand, they also have to understand that they’re going to have to compromise with respect to expectation and production.”

Published In

Science and Sustainability Magazine Issue Cover
Science and Sustainability

Published: April 7, 2015

Cover Story

Science and Sustainability

With freezers and fume hoods running nonstop, it’s no surprise that lab facilities hog more resources than do most other workspaces. 

Featured Article

INSIGHTS on Big Data in Drug Discovery

Big data might bring more benefits to drug discovery than to any other field. For one thing, discovering a new drug turns out to be incredibly difficult. On average, a pharmaceutical company tries about 10,000 drug candidates for every one that ends up on the market. Plus, the process of discovering and developing a new drug costs hundreds of millions of dollars and takes more than a decade—some say more for both measurements.