THE BLOG
10/28/2015 04:43 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2016

Millennials' Expectations Transform Employee Engagement: The New Corporate Philanthropy

As baby boomers exit the workforce en masse, the race to attract the best and brightest millennials has employers across the country scratching their heads, re-thinking the tried and true recruitment and retention strategies they have relied on for decades.

That's because millennials are a generation unlike any other.

Because their priorities and expectations are vastly different, they're prompting seismic shifts in how companies approach them. Consider: in Deloitte's Human Capital Trends 2015, a survey of more than 3,300 business and HR leaders from 106 countries, "Culture and Engagement" -- which barely charted last year -- rose to become the most important issue companies around the world say they are facing, with nearly nine-in-10 calling it their top challenge. As a result, two-thirds (66 percent) of HR respondents reported they are updating their engagement and retention strategies.

Understanding their motivations is one key to attracting talented millennials. Chief among those motivations are purpose and mission. Perhaps because many grew up doing service work in high school and college -- a trend that took hold in the 1990s and early 2000s -- a recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey found nearly nine-in-10 millennials gravitate toward companies with pronounced corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs and 86 percent would consider leaving if their employer's CSR no longer met their expectations.

While incorporating purpose into one's professional life, outside the walls of the company itself, isn't necessarily new, the idea of emphasizing and integrating with a more formalized approach demands a bit of a re-set -- in a good way.

It's led us to establish the Covestro Employee Engagement Institute (CEEI) at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, Pa. CEEI is one of our first major CSR projects since becoming Covestro earlier this fall. Part of our new companywide CSR initiative, i³ (ignite, imagine, innovate), CEEI is helping us re-imagine employee engagement and volunteerism for the 21st century.

CEEI's training and education programs aim to increase capacity of nonprofits by building and strengthening bonds between them and for-profit businesses. And it does this by engaging employees from both sectors in new and novel ways.

Skills-based volunteerism (SBV) is one such way. It involves teams of employees making substantive contributions by applying their expertise and competencies to solve specific challenges facing nonprofits, whether in IT, management, finance or marketing. It's a different approach and, with it, Covestro is redefining corporate philanthropy to include both monetary and human capital giving.

SBV is a fairly new concept that has not yet reached critical mass, but certainly will if Covestro has anything to do with it. That's because CEEI is open to virtually any company who wishes to have their employees participate and get involved.

Before becoming Covestro in September, we had an opportunity to pilot SBV consulting projects as Bayer MaterialScience in Pittsburgh and Baytown, Texas, where two of our key U.S. sites are based. These pilots have engaged roughly 70 Covestro employees with 16 local nonprofits, including the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens, ASSET STEM Education, Bay Area Homeless Services and United Ways in both areas.

Our employees have helped Goodwill of Southwest Pennsylvania maximize its internal IT systems; analyzed and proposed cost-saving measures for the social services organization ACHIEVA; prepared strategic marketing plans for the Bay Area Rehabilitation Center; and, for the Heinz History Center, developed a baseline carbon footprint as a first step to the museum's creating a strategic sustainability and energy management plan.

Pretty heady stuff.

There is a real power to skills-based volunteerism. It's a two-way street. The nonprofits benefit from expertise in a particular area they may not be able to afford. From a business point of view, it reaches beyond a social strategy and into talent development and retention. Our employee-volunteer consultants are given a fresh challenge full of purpose and the chance to burnish their skills through a different kind of professional experience -- and sometimes discover they've developed new skills in the process.

Lisa Marie Nespoli who worked on the Heinz History Center project explained how it helped her hone her leadership skills, appreciate the skills of others and develop some new ones, including learning how to deal with ambiguity.

"Life doesn't come with a set of directions. It's about figuring things out. When teams enter a consulting project, the path is not always clear. You have to carve it yourself."

SBV has so many benefits. It builds connectivity between the workforce and the community. It deepens employees' roots in their region and keeps them there. That's something we and our regional colleagues at the Greater Houston Partnership and Allegheny Conference have made a top priority -- talent recruitment and retention in their respective areas.

And it has clear appeal for millennials. According the Deloitte report, more than twice as many employees today are motivated by work passion rather than career ambitions. SBV taps directly into those passions and connects them to the organizations and causes they care most about.

But SBV isn't only for millennials, nor is it the only program CEEI offers. In fact, the programs provide a range of engagement training and opportunities for employees at virtually every stage of their career, from new hires and mid-career professionals to senior-level managers and retirees.

There's something for everybody.

At Covestro, we know nonprofit organizations play as essential a role in healthy, vibrant communities as for-profit organizations do.

Our hope now is that other companies recognize this, see that with skills-based volunteerism the future is now and get on board with this incredibly transformational approach.