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Student research on generation differences helps inform Cornell's recruiting efforts

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Joe Schwartz

What job seekers look for most in prospective jobs -- be it benefits, independence, professional development, creativity or work/life balance -- depends on their generation, according to research conducted by 17 students in an ILR class last fall.

Led by Beth Livingston, assistant professor of human resource studies, the Staffing Organizations class was asked to conduct primary and secondary research on generational issues regarding employee recruitment and mentoring. The research findings will help inform Cornell's strategic initiative to recruit and retain diverse faculty and staff, says Livingston.

The course and research were so interesting that enrollment for the same course nearly doubled this semester. This time around, the students are exploring how different generational perspectives can inform such workplace challenges at Cornell as employee engagement; civility and professionalism; community engagement; flexible work options; and the definition of diversity.

The idea for the research stemmed from a visit to Cornell last year by Phyllis Weiss Haserot '65, MRP '67, founder and head of the consulting firm Practice Development Counsel, which specializes in solutions to workplace intergenerational challenges. Lynette Chappell-Williams, Cornell's associate vice president for workforce diversity and inclusion, asked Haserot to consult pro bono to help Cornell serve as a model for embracing and capitalizing on generational differences in its faculty and staff recruitment and renewal efforts.

To explore the issues in a time of limited resources, Haserot and Chappell-Williams collaborated with Livingston to give Livingston's students the opportunity to contribute to a real project while enhancing their research skills.

"As a professor, I am always interested in ways I can further engage my students in 'real-world' applications of knowledge, and this project was well-positioned to provide that engagement," said Livingston.

Toward the end of fall semester, students had an opportunity to ask Haserot and Chappell-Williams questions about the generational initiative and to learn how their research papers might be used.

Some of the student recommendations are now under consideration.

"The students came up with some great suggestions, including e-mentoring between the four generations through such applications as instant messaging and Skype," said Haserot. "They also have recommended cross-generational recruitment strategies based on their findings. For instance, students found that people born prior to 1940 tend to look at job listings in newspapers, while those born after 1980 tend to use social networking venues like Twitter or Facebook. Those in the middle tend to use or CareerBuilder."

Similarly, the students found that older workers tend to like communicating through meetings while younger ones tend to use text messaging -- but all generations like using the phone.

"At a time when one of the university's key diversity priorities is faculty renewal to address expected retirements, these suggestions couldn't be more timely," said Chappell-Williams.

Based on the success of the fall semester class, Livingston's spring semester class is taking an intergenerational approach to topics of concern to Cornell. Livingston plans to invite various administrators to the students' final presentations to demonstrate how student resources can help the university address some of its more pressing human resource concerns, with benefits to be gained by all.

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Nancy Doolittle