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Gen-X and gen-y: Teaching Them the Business

How to bridge the age gap between older and younger workers in the utility industry.
Fortnightly Magazine - June 2004
  • serious, classroom approach, with a few fun activities thrown in.

In reaction to this approach, GenXers and especially Bridgers "may pull out a GameBoy to get them through the lecture," El-Shamy wryly states. The younger generations have been shaped by the fast-paced, digitally oriented, video-centric world in which they grew up. And they have adapted to a style of learning that fits that lifestyle. But it's much different than the learning experiences they're getting in the workplace, because the trainers or mentors are generally Baby Boomers.

The learning needs of GenXers and Bridgers are, not surprisingly, closer to a video game than a classroom. El-Shamy recommends that the learning environment for younger workers have the following characteristics in order to be effective: 3

  • A more rapid pace;
  • A style that relies prominently on interactivity and a hands-on approach;
  • A need to make the content delivered relevant to them and their situations;
  • Options, variety, and even unpredictability; and
  • Game-like approaches to training.

To the extent that some basic training material can be developed with interactive content and game playing, there's value in doing that. However, the reality is that utility staff, especially at the craft level, will continue for the foreseeable future to get most of their training on the job from experienced, older workers. Nevertheless, understanding the nature of these newer generations of workers, and potential conflicts they might have with older workers today, must be an integral part of the development of effective strategies for both retaining the critical knowledge held in the minds of today's workforce and transferring it effectively to tomorrow's.

Younger Generation's View

Paul Steinberger, the training and compliance project manager at American Transmission Co. LLC (ATC), is well versed in the differences in learning between the two groups. As a high school teacher in the 1970s, he taught the tail end of the Baby Boomers as they entered young adulthood. Now, after three decades in designing, developing, executing, and administering training programs for utilities, he finds himself educating the young adults of the Bridgers generation. The differences he sees are as stark as the contrast between playing Twister in the garage and playing on an XBox or Playstation.

Steinberger believes that the assessments of today's learners made by El-Shamy and others are accurate. "They are more visual. There's no question about it," he stated. "They're more inclined to like to see knowledge transferred to them in an activity-based form." He notes that today's learners, for better or worse, "don't like reading, and … don't like being told."

"What I get from the young students is, 'I would do a lot better if I had more flash'-things that move on a screen, things you have to interact with. They like to have information delivered in something that's entertaining," Steinberger says. But in the real world of today's utility company, knowledge transfer is conducted in the same way it has been for years. In Steinberger's words, "The new person is told, 'Go sit with Joe today,' and Joe will tell that person everything he knows about the job." This