How African companies can get the most out of Generation Y employees

An increasing number of 20-somethings are joining the workforce in Africa. These millennials, also known as Generation Y, are viewed as entrepreneurial and innovative, but also as impatient and less loyal compared to previous generations.

Companies need to do more to engage their Gen Y staff.

Companies need to do more to engage their Gen Y staff.

A 2013 US survey, titled The Gen Y Workplace Expectations Study, revealed that managers have an overall negative view of young workers, saying millennials have unrealistic compensation expectations (51%), a poor work ethic (47%), and are easily distracted (46%).

Veronica Anam-Waiyaki, partner at Kenyan-based Human Capital Synergies Africa, notes that organisations are increasingly facing challenges dealing with their younger employees. She highlights a clash of personalities between millennials and their older employers and managers.

When Anam-Waiyaki returned to Kenya in the 1990s after studying in the US, she wanted a solid eight-to-five job where she could work for many years, with benefits such as a pension scheme and medical cover.

“Things were very clear cut. We were looking for stability,” she says. “For the younger generation, their expectations are much sooner. What makes them tick is very different from what made us tick a few years ago. A 25-year-old would want to have a car, a well furnished apartment and a good social network. They don’t necessarily think about what they will be doing in five years but what is happening now. What matters are the returns for today, not tomorrow.”

Salim Anjarwalla, managing director of Kenyan-based manufacturing company African Cotton Industries, says it is good that after decades of brain drain and limited talent in many fields, Africa now has a big pool of young, well-educated, energetic and innovative people. However, he warns that failure on the part of employers to adapt to the modern world and maximise the potential of younger workers is “risking your business not moving forward”.

“Innovation is the key to the success of any business and the more young people you have in your organisation who are well-educated, passionate and innovative, the better. If you don’t allow them to voice their opinions and make changes accordingly to fit with the times, then I think you will lose out,” says Anjarwalla.

Great expectations

Jackline Kidaha is a final year student at the University of Nairobi, specialising in development communication. She hopes to work with the United Nations after she graduates.

“I like dealing with humanitarian issues, identifying gaps in society and mobilising people to develop and implement solutions. I am particularly passionate about informal settlements and would love to address issues of hygiene and cleanliness of the environment in those areas,” says Kidaha.

The 22-year-old explains that she would like a starting monthly salary of Ksh. 100,000 (US$1,176), after tax, “because I am going to do a lot of work”. She also aspires to climb the career ladder and be a project manager after five years of employment, earning Ksh. 400,000 ($4,700).

“Many programmes have been rolled out and failed in informal settlements. I know that with the skills and knowledge I have acquired in university, I will deliver excellent services to solve the problems in slum areas,” says Kidaha. “In return I want to be able to buy a home in an up-market suburb in Nairobi and a car because I can no longer tolerate using public transport. I have sinusitis and the smoke from buses just makes it worse.”


Anam-Waiyaki notes that today’s younger employees are goal-driven and get motivated when there is a clear reward structure. “If you attach bonuses or performance-based pay towards their delivery, they will deliver. That is what makes them tick.”

Companies without performance reward structures risk losing younger staff in “search of acknowledgment and recognition”.

“People move companies because a new employer promised them Ksh. 5,000 ($58) extra pay. They think, ‘I moved up a little bit in my career. If my employer is not going to give me this I will leave’. The sense of loyalty is not necessarily there. They want to know that if they perform they will get ‘X’ or a promotion. You need to show them that growth and career development,” she says.

Anam-Waiyaki adds that millennials value training and development.

“They want to be continuously challenged with new things. If you give them a humdrum job [like] management it won’t work very well because they see it as boring. Typically you will find individuals who are very skilled, for instance, an IT person who does their job really well but things change when they are put in management. Organisations should think about how to make such roles challenging, fulfilling, rewarding and less boring.”

According to Anam-Waiyaki, organisations need to make a conscious effort to engage with Gen Y staff, adding that not enough is currently being done by African companies to understand and accommodate younger employees.

“A few organisations that are introspective and forward looking are seeking ways to address the challenges they face but most organisations, especially those that have big systems in place and are well established, are not as flexible and nimble to move with the times. You have to make a conscious effort or you will lose people. It is sad really because Generation Y and Z are typically self-starters, innovative, entrepreneurial and self-motivated. If you want to grow your organisation you need such individuals.”