Final word: Michael Morris

Michael Morris from TriMega discusses the need to address the median age of the OP industry, and ensure the sector is nurturing young talent for the future.

The lost generation

On a flight home from Phoenix to Chicago last month, I got chit-chatting with my seatmate Dave over our savoury meal of aeroplane peanuts. It turned out Dave is an executive for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which, I learned from him, is the largest car rental company in North America. In what was a surprisingly interesting conversation 32,000 ft over Kansas, I learned more than I ever thought I’d know about the car rental business and, to be fair, I brought Dave in the loop about the wonderful wide world of office products. Yes, lucky Dave. 

One of the many fascinating nuggets I discovered was that the average age of an Enterprise Rent-A-Car employee was 27 years old. What a youthful workforce! 

The company hires over 8,000 college graduates a year, holds the distinction of being the largest recruiter of college graduates in the US and is intently focused on bringing youthful energy and ideas into the business. From internships to management training programmes (which produced the company’s current CEO) the organisation’s entire structure is built around developing these young employees into long-standing managers, executives and leaders within its organisation. And they have the accolades to back it up. BusinessWeek magazine has repeatedly rated Enterprise as one of the ‘50 best places to launch a career’ and in 2011 Forbes magazine ranked it as the 15th largest private company in America. 

Days after that flight, I found myself still thinking about my conversation with Dave. In particular, I thought a great deal about the age of his company’s workforce, and its success in injecting youthful energy into the business. I just couldn’t help but think that we are simply not as adept or focused on attracting young talent. 

I don’t know that there has ever been any research done to identify the average age of the OP industry executive, but my guess is it is slightly older than Enterprise’s 27. According to a recent US Department of Labor Report, the median age of the US workforce is 41. Attend any OP industry event, walk into any independent dealer location, or visit the headquarters of one of the leading manufacturers and I think you would agree that we likely also exceed the national median age of 41. Sure, certain industry players may not fall into this category, but generally speaking, especially in leadership roles, we tend to be more senior. Even as one of the (self-described, mind you) younger members of our great industry, I’ve got to admit, having been in it for more than 14 years myself, I too am contributing to the aging of the OP workforce. 

Well, so what? Rental cars are totally different to index cards and shredders. So what if we’re a little more mature in our industry? An older workforce means more experience, more wisdom, more seasoned and simply more general business acumen. Examples of leadership, innovation, stewardship and forward thinking can be seen all over our industry, guided by experienced industry veterans. It is this experience, and the insights gained by years of sweat equity invested that has made our industry so great.

But it’s up to us to keep it going by developing our bench – that next wave of incredibly talented leaders to continue to steer our industry to success. We can, but I believe it is critical we learn something from Dave at the rental car company: 

•  Generation Y (Gen Y) is in the workplace, big time: Roughly defined as those born between 1977 and 1997, Gen Y is nearly 80 million strong in the US, and is making its presence known as the fastest-growing segment in the workforce. It is predicted that in ten years, workers under 35 will account for more than half of the working population in the US, the UK, Germany and Italy. So while they may not be entering our industry at the same rate, they are becoming key players in the workforce overall. And given that the lifeblood of the OP industry is the (white collar) labour force, it would serve us to have a greater understanding of these younger users and buyers. One source for these insights is the book, Y-Size Your Business: How Gen Y Employees Can Save You Money and Grow Your Business, from author and Gen Y guru Jason Ryan Dorsey.

Clearly, Enterprise Rent-A-Car gets Gen Y, and how our understanding of the distinct attributes of these younger workers not only helps in attracting and retaining them as employees, it also helps us market, sell and communicate to them as customers. We need to focus on understanding Gen Y so we can do a better job of attracting them to OP and cultivating them into future leaders.  

•  Youth fuels the technology revolution: Regardless of how technology savvy any of us think we are, we pale in comparison to the younger generation. This generation has been born with a cell phone in their hands, uses texting or email over picking up the phone and has had the internet available to them for the majority of their lives. This generation is likely to think of iPads, iPhones and their laptop as ‘office supplies’ more than a legal pad, file folder and correction fluid. In fact, this very subject is the topic of a timely research study this summer, which will be published by OPI in association with MWA called Boiling The Frog: The OP Industry’s Guide To Young Office Workers. This initiative will look at the behaviour and attitudes of young office workers whose usage of, and attitudes towards, traditional office products is likely to be very different to that of their older colleagues. Nothing is having a more profound impact on our business than technology, from the product mix sold, to systems and websites, from social media to marketing. Having the generation that is leading this technology shift on our team gives us the best chance at competing and winning.  

•  Our future depends on them: Succession planning, formulating an exit strategy and developing the next generation of leadership are mission critical for many in our industry, never more so than in the independent dealer community, near and dear to my heart. As many business owners approach retirement age and look to ride off into the sunset, bringing this new generation of energetic, talented and passionate young contributors into the business becomes crucial to its long-term survivability, whether it is developing the upcoming generation within the family into the business, or attracting and growing new outside talent. 

We need to assess what, as an industry, we are doing to develop the next generation. From college recruitment and internship programmes to mentoring initiatives, from young executive forums (such as SP Richards’ YES programme) to management training tools – we should be doing everything possible to position the industry’s continued success, led by the next generation. 

Enterprise Rent-A-Car is not alone in recognising the long-term business benefits of tapping into the younger generation. There are countless companies in countless industries that have done the same. Our company, and our industry, could be one of them. 

This focus on the next generation doesn’t have to happen in sudden movements, nor overnight. But, what our industry does need to do now is to pause and ask: what does a rental car company know that we don’t know? Oh, and what steps are we taking to regain the lost generation in office products?