What do Millennials want? That’s such a common question it’s almost a cliché, featured in advertisements for things like fast food and cars. But for businesses, it’s an existential question. Millennials passed the Baby Boomers in 2015 and now represent the largest generation in the U.S. working age population. Keeping Millennials engaged and productive is critical for enterprises to remain competitive.

A recent article in HR Executive Online takes a look at what makes Millennial job expectations unlike previous generations. The story references findings from a recent Gallup poll titled How Millennials Want to Work and Live. The findings of which won’t be available in full until 2018, but preliminary findings make clear that developmental opportunities are a huge priority for the Millennial generation.

According to Gallup, 87 percent of millennials rate professional or career growth and development opportunities as important in a job. In addition, 59 percent said opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important when applying for a position, and only 39 percent reported learning something that made them better at their jobs within the last 30 days prior to taking the survey.

This desire seems more acute for Millennials than past generations. The article quotes senior executives on why that may be the case:

“Millennials’ intense hunger for development may be a consequence of the Great Recession, said Lisa Buckingham, executive vice president and chief human resources, brand and communications officer at Lincoln Financial Group in Radnor, Pa. These young adults watched as their parents lost jobs and lost much of the value of their retirement funds. Older members of the millennial generation endured their own trials, often struggling to find a job after college or even move out of their parents’ house, due to the economic downturn.”

“’As organizations have gotten flatter and narrower, and dealing with a tight talent environment . . . the pressure on a longer-term, sustainable, career-driven development model has increased,’ says Evan Sinar, chief scientist and vice president of Development Dimensions International in Pittsburgh. ‘Unfortunately, many employees — millennial and otherwise — aren’t feeling like their organizations are developing them as they should. Once millennials stop growing, they start going. ’”

Based on some of these early survey findings, HR Executive suggests the following best practices:

  • Provide a mix of learning formats – let go of the notion that Millennials would prefer digital content – many will thrive in a more structured classroom setting;
  • Aggressively promote internal opportunities for growth;
  • Keep things are open as possible – look to support cross-functional teams, and don’t require extensive previous experience;
  • Redefine opportunities for growth – not every new skill needs to directly lead to a step up the corporate ladder.

Some companies referenced in the piece are already taking such steps. Lincoln Financial has brought in professors from the Wharton Business School at the University of Philadelphia to teach employees new skills. Buckingham says the Millennials at the company want to be challenged, they “want their heads to hurt at work” whenever possible.

Organizations will find their professional development dollars go further when technology is brought into the mix. When it’s not feasible to bring a distributed workforce onsite for presentations like the ones at Lincoln Financial, for example, video conferencing can bring the content to Millennials, wherever they happen to be working that day.

When employees can join in a synchronous learning environment, the experience is interactive an impactful without the travel or associated downtime. Though less, engaging, watching the content on demand makes it at least accessible to employees in locations where time differences or scheduling conflicts make it impossible to attend live.

As another example of an organization implementing HR Executive’s best practices, Taco Bell has set up “sprint teams,” groups of cross-functional employees that meet for one or two months and focus on pressing business challenges.

The company also organized an “innovator’s playground,” a voluntary program that gave employees three hours to come up with ways to improve corporate processes. According to Ferril Onyett, director of learning and organizational development at Taco Bell, that’s just the kind of challenge many Millennials are looking for on the job.

“They want to be given a project and just run with it,” she is quoted as saying. “They’ll check in and make sure they’re aligned and they aren’t missing something, but they really want to be empowered to go do the work.”

There will continue to be debate as to why Millennials have different professional expectations than previous generations. What’s not up for debate is that companies need to develop and retain their best young talent to win in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Implementing an effective and ongoing developmental program can deliver the most value for both the company and the Millennial employee.