Milwaukee firms make pitch to ‘Millenials’ in effort to slow brain drain

Milwaukee manufacturer Briggs and Stratton summed up its small engine business as “all about making people’s lives better” while showing photos of impoverished children in Haiti; We Energies pointed out that its product “makes it possible to charge iPhones and iPads; and MillerCoors brewery boasted of reducing water usage by 40 percent “not because we had to, but to help the environment.”

A vice president at Kohl’s department stores jokingly told the audience, “I’m just going to tweet my entire speech to you.”

In a series of presentations at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee employers strove to appeal to job seekers in their 20s and 30s — so-called Millennials, the generation that came of age around the turn of the 21st century. The event, billed as a “reverse job fair,” was part of Young Professionals Week, sponsored by NEWaukee, a group that promotes networking among young adults and also extols Milwaukee as a desirable place to live and work.

More than 200 young professionals attended the reverse job fair; an estimated 5,000 overall attended the weeklong series of events, which were deliberately held in a variety of interesting Milwaukee locations, such as the former Allen-Bradley clock tower, the Calatrava-designed art museum, and the Northpoint Lighthouse, overlooking Lake Michigan.

Organizers said the concept behind the reverse job fair is closely tied to the so-called “brain drain” phenomenon, which holds that college-educated, creative young adults are leaving cities like Milwaukee for communities they judge to be more in line with their values and desired lifestyle.

Angela Damiani, executive director of ART Milwaukee and a co-organizer of Young Professionals Week, said many cities are in the same boat as Milwaukee — trying to persuade young adults to stay. However, she added, a few cities — such as Austin, Texas, and Seattle, Wash. — are grappling with an influx of young people who move there without any job prospects, based on the perception that those cities offer a better lifestyle.

NEWaukee acts as a quasi chamber of commerce: touting Milwaukee’s restaurants, culture, networking opportunities and the image of being a caring, environmentally conscious community that embraces youthful enterprise.

The group invited employers to give “elevator speeches” in order to sell themselves to young professionals, as opposed to traditional job fairs where job seekers try to sell themselves to employers.

Appealing to the Millennial generation’s love of technology was an obvious start.

One feature of the reverse job fair was a smartphone app that allowed participants to scan QR codes posted at employers’ displays.

“It allows persons to connect with the companies and also with each other by scanning the QR code,” explained Danya Strait, communications and event coordinator for the Greater Milwaukee Committee’s Innovation in Milwaukee initiative, a sponsor of the event. “In that way, there’s no need to exchange business cards, you have everything right there. You can make notes right in your phone, such as ‘This person is someone I definitely want to follow up with’ or ‘This person seems like a great person for this position.’ ”

Ian Abston, president of NEWaukee, told the crowd: “We’re young. We’re tech-savvy. We do this sh–!”

Despite the recent recession, which according to a recent report has left Millennials with higher unemployment than other age groups nationally, and despite the number of hopeful young Milwaukeeans who showed up dressed for success with resumes in hand, even though the event was billed as casual networking only, the reverse job fair strategy seemed to resonate.

Twenty-somethings who attended the reverse job fair said they perked up when employers spoke of giving back to communities.

Brenda Zuleger, 23, of West Bend, said she attended specifically to meet representatives of MillerCoors, hoping her biology degree and experience working in a lab might lead to a job there doing quality testing.

But she said she would be willing to change careers in order to join a company that emphasizes community involvement. She is now considering applying at Manpower Group instead. “It’s not necessarily my major, but I like what they stand for, I guess,” said Zuleger, who was active in volunteer work as a college student. “Now that I know that other companies are into community service, that’s an area that I might actually go into now, and I didn’t even know that,” she said.

Zuleger was impressed by a presentation by Chris Rowan, lead performance consultant for the Milwaukee-based Manpower Group staffing firm.

“What do you want to get out of work?” Rowan asked the audience. “A paycheck? A benefit plan? Two weeks paid vacation? Or do you want something a bit more meaningful? A couple of the reasons I like working for Manpower Group is you change the world while you work. Helping others is really who we are.”

Carl Janssen, 30, of Whitefish Bay, an unemployed engineering grad, thought WeEnergies “sounded nice because they talked about mentoring people, because I like mentoring people myself.”

Janssen, however, was turned off after hearing Kohl’s representative Ed Gawronski describe its culture as “fast, dynamic, agile,” and a company that “plays to win” but also “cares about each other.”

“It’s sounds like they’re rushing you, always being in a hurry, wanting everything fast,” said Janssen.

All of the Millennials interviewed said they’d jump at the chance to work in other cities or even other countries, although they also liked Milwaukee.

Pete Viravec, 30, works at the Milwaukee office of Blue7 Solutions, which offers cloud computing and other IT services for businesses worldwide. He’d like to land a job that taps more of his creative ideas, but said a company has to prove it’s truly innovative to get his attention.

“I want to help shape the company, rather than have the company shape me,” he said. “I like Milwaukee, but I have no problem picking up and moving.”

Viravec was curious to check out Laughlin Constable advertising agency, which has offices in Chicago, New York and New Jersey, as well as its Milwaukee headquarters. The agency is advertising for a “user experience professional,” which fits Viravec’s self-description. Joyce O’Brien, a company spokeswoman, said the agency, which got its start in 1975, has learned to become “family friendly,” offering flex time and work-from-home hours to retain talented employees.

Laura Timm of Briggs and Stratton said the century-old Milwaukee manufacturer has torn down cubicle walls and is encouraging employees to brainstorm over coffee after noticing its young professionals gathering after work at Starbucks.

On Friday morning, a panel discussion at the Intercontinental Hotel on “brain drain” centered around persuading employees that Milwaukee is a place to settle down for the long haul.

Rich Meeusen, CEO of Badger Meter, said he fantasizes that someday Milwaukee will be known as the premier place to move for those looking for a career in water technology. Other panelists stressed the city’s diversity, food, arts and culture.

But Millennials in the audience said Milwaukee companies will need to do a better job of making their workplaces more young employee-friendly in order to keep workers, especially as the economy improves.

Tyler and Kristi Carlson, both 29, previously worked in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

“I worked at Target headquarters,” said Kristi Carlson. “We had ping pong tables. We had Segways that we could ride around. They definitely tried to keep things fun. The companies that stay stagnant will kick themselves later on.”

Brian Dixon, 38, who works in business consulting for the higher education industry, is an exception in that he badly wants to stay in Milwaukee, the city in which he grew up and where he is now raising a family. But, he lamented, “I hit a ceiling in my career where I couldn’t really get any further, I couldn’t become a director or an associate director or whatever because I was in my early 30s.” Milwaukee’s executives, he feels, don’t believe younger adults can really handle a firm’s top jobs.

“I get the sense that companies are saying they are friendly to young professionals, because it’s the popular, trendy thing to say right now,” he said. “I don’t get the sense that it’s something people are serious about.”

A Louisiana company recruited Dixon and he quickly rose to vice president, but he said he has been traveling constantly, mostly to Chicago, and is ready to move there.

Panelists Genyne Edwards, an attorney and networking consultant; and Griselda Aldrete, executive director of Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee., urged Millennials to act on their desire to do volunteer work and to give back to the community — partly for its potential to make career-enhancing connections.

“Make deep, meaningful relationships and partnerships with people” that go well beyond Facebook and Twitter, Edwards advised. “So you can call them 10, 15 years from now.”

— By Kay Nolan