Book a Speaker
Grow Membership
Reduce Turnover
XYZ University YouTube Page LogoXYZ University Instagram Page LogoXYZ University LinkedIn Page LogoXYZ University Twitter Page LogoXYZ University Facebook Page LogoXYZ University Vimeo LogoXYZ University RSS Feed Logo
Generation Y
Succession Planning
Talent Development

3 Steps to Solving a Workforce Crisis

When Danny Hearn contacted XYZ University five years ago, two daunting issues loomed over industries throughout the region of Hickory, North Carolina: how to attract and engage Millennials, and how to solve for the aging workforce crisis and talent shortage.

When Danny Hearn contacted XYZ University five years ago, two daunting issues loomed over industries throughout the region of Hickory, North Carolina: how to attract and engage Millennials, and how to solve for the aging workforce crisis and talent shortage.

“Our number one business issue is attracting young people to manufacturing jobs. It’s at a crisis stage. We have 3,000 jobs that go unfilled every day. Most are really great manufacturing jobs that require smart, skilled people,” said Hearn, who is President and CEO of the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce in Hickory, NC.

Hearn had read Sarah Sladek’s book, The End of Membership As We Know It, and XYZ University’s report, America’s Aging Workforce Crisis.He invited Sladek to Hickory to present to area employers and Chamber of Commerce executives from throughout the southeast.

At first, Hearn reported that some leaders were resistant to change, but as they implemented the strategies that XYZ University provided, the outcomes made a positive impact on their bottom lines.

Specifically, Hearn shared his key learnings and developments as a result of XYZ University’s guidance.

Lesson 1: Invite, engage and listen.

XYZ University suggested that leaders brought young employees, members, volunteers, and leaders to the table, and requested their feedback on specific workforce and community initiatives.

“At the Chamber, we conducted a young professionals survey that led to a successful strategy, ” Hearn explained. “For example, we discovered that the word ‘member’ didn’t resonate with young adults, and that our membership fee formula was outdated. As a result, the Chamber created a tiered structure for ‘Investors’ and ‘Shareholders’. If we hadn’t asked for their feedback, we never would have known we were alienating young people.”

Lesson 2: Millennials do not engage for the sake of tradition, but because they want valuable, life-long learning experiences. 

Before the survey, the Chamber had launched a Young Professionals Group, and the leader of that group was a Baby Boomer, ex-officio, non-voting Board member. Sladek explained to Hearn this model of keeping young professionals at arms-length, under the guidance or someone else, would never work.

Today, the Chamber has literally brought young professionals to the decision-making table; at least half of the Chamber’s Board members are now under the age of 40.

In addition, the Chamber started engaging young professionals in the creation of videos about employment opportunities on The Hot Jobs Videos promote job openings for local employers, and have become wildly popular among Millennial/Gen Y audiences.

Lesson 3: Collaboration is key. 

Recognizing that engaging young professionals was an urgent need for many local organizations, the Chamber reached out to area YMCAs, Rotary Clubs, and faith groups to share information, ideas, and collaboratively create strategies focused on retaining young talent in the Catawba region.

The Chamber also launched Made Magazine, an online and print publication, featuring information about advanced manufacturing and other jobs in the Catawba region.

Once known as a hub of furniture manufacturing, community leaders wanted to showcase the community and career opportunities to prospective young employees.  For its inaugural issue, advertising oversold by 33%, and 25,000 hard copies were distributed to schools, community organizations, and parents.

The Bottom Line

Now seen as a visionary leader in the community, closely aligned with young professionals and community leaders, the Chamber of Commerce has improved member retention, growing from 83% in 2011 to 92% in 2015.

Moreover, Hearn feels pride in what has been accomplished, and enthusiastic about the future of Catawba County Chamber and the Hickory region. “When I retire in 2016, I know our organization and the community will be in good hands for generations to come.”

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

More posts by this author

Take the first step towards your future.

Looking for a game changer at your next event or a strategy unique to your organization?