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Attracting and retaining Millennials.

FRUSTRATED. BAFFLED. PERPLEXED. These are just a few or the words I hear every day from career tech centers and technical and community colleges nationwide as they try to reach and retain students in the Millennial Generation. This generation, ages 12 33, has educators, businesses and communities stymied. What makes this generation tick, how do you get through to them, and how do you get them to take action? As we prepare for CareerTech VISION 2012, I'm convinced that this will be one of the most pivotal issues we solve together.


Over and over we observe the same thing: it's all about getting them to see the value (what I call "the light") in what each program can deliver to them. Their favorite radio station--and let's be honest, ours too---is WIFM: What's In It For Me?

Attracting and retaining more of the right students, in the right programs, for the right reasons is riot impossible. In fact, it's very attainable. The payoff of such a fiat is that your retention rates will skyrocket, followed closely by graduation and program completion rates. So how do you reach those right students? What's the secret? It's simple but profound: your entire organization has to understand the Millennial Generation and the "light at the end of the tunnel" strategy. At VISION 2012, we'll drill down to the practical steps to make this vision of the right students, in the right programs, for the right reasons--a reality in your organization.

Hearing the Branch Creak

Have you ever climbed up high in a tree and stepped out on a sturdy looking limb, only to heat, it creak and then crack? Do you remember how you felt? What about that sick reeling in the pit of your stomach? What did you do in that split second? You immediately started strategic planning, right? You brainstormed--where will I fall, what can I grab, how last can I get back to the safety oldie trunk?

In our everyday lives, don't we hear the branch creak, too? You may get that feeling when things go wrong at the office or when you're faced with critical family issues. Perhaps it's when you really want something and there's a serious fear of loss you miss the opportunity. In those instances your reaction is the same as in the tree: you take immediate action. The level and intensity of the action you take is proportional to how badly you want a particular outcome.

The truth about Millennials is that they rarely hear the branch creak. At every socio-economic level--upper class through poverty level--it's just not that bad in their eyes. They can always move back home (with their baby boomer parents who are the most successful generation in history) or crash at a friend's. No branch creak: no action. No reason to achieve: no achievement. This is what we as educators are up against.

If the "Want to" Is Strong Enough, the "How to" Will Come

Our challenge as administrators and educators is to make this generation see the light at the end of the tunnel. The tunnel is the work, the effort, the time in the classroom or the lab, and the light is what their careers and lives will look like after they get through the tunnel. The light is the reason for going through the tunnel to begin with. Why would anyone go through the tunnel unless they wanted to come out on the other side? Simply put, the light creates the "want to." If your organization can create the light for every program, you'll create the "want to" and the "how to" will come.

A Nick-Driven Life

My son Nick didn't see the light or hear the branch creak until his sophomore year in high school. Up until that time he was living a dad-driven life. But once he toured Cuyahoga Valley Career Center's (CVCC) Programming & Software Development Program, he saw the light at the end of the tunnel--he had to achieve this because it was what he wanted. And this program changed Nick's life. Up until that day, Nick was sporting an impressive 1.5 grade point average and had missed the maximum number of school days, but yet he aced every test. Imagine the frustration of watching your extremely intelligent son, with a 4.0 comprehension level, never turn in homework because he saw it as a complete waste of time.

The truth is that Nick wasn't engaged in his education. He didn't understand why so much time in school was spent doing things that bored him. That all changed the day he was accepted to CVCCA. Suddenly Nick loved school--because he was the right student, in the right program, for the right reason. He saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and hearing the branch creak made him take action. The "want to" was now strong enough that the "how to" kicked in. He figured out how to fix his grade point average, he figured out how to do his homework, he figured out how to get to the next level.

Fast-forward a couple years. Nick significantly increased his GPA and won a modest scholarship to Akron University where he just graduated this past June and had two offers to start immediately with international software companies. He accepted one and is now working and living on his own. Mission accomplished. Nick is in charge of his own destiny, and he's living a Nick-driven life!

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

All students have the same opportunity as Nick. Your organization must embrace the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel strategy to connect with this generation and then use it for both your enrollment and retention efforts. This strategy consists of two critical components:

1. Shine the light on the career.

What does the career look like and what can they do? What kinds of skills and talents will they possess? What opportunities will they have? What kind of money will they make and what kind of advancement is possible?

The career is important, but the Millennial Generation is all about "experience." In fact, experience is everything to them, so the second and most impactful component of this strategy is:

2. Shine the light on the lifestyle.

What will their life look like and what experiences can they have? Will they make enough to travel, see concerts, have 21 family? What kind of freedoms will they enjoy and where can they live?

These are the forces that motivate this generation. When they get hungry to achieve the lifestyle and career--the light at the end of the tunnel--that's when they will step up and take action. Until that light dawns, most educators, businesses and communities will continue to struggle with mediocre results.

Blaze the light to attract new students and shine it constantly once they commit to your programs. They need to be refocused on the light throughout their entire relationship with you. Remind them every day about the light; let them know how far they have come and how much closer they are to the light. Take them on field trips and bring in professionals from their chosen field. Whenever possible, let them see, feel, smell and experience the light at the end of the tunnel.

Join us at CareerTech VISION 2012 to discover more about how you can get the right students, in the right programs, for the right reasons--because these are the students who will see and embrace the light and do whatever it takes to get through the tunnel.

Mark Perna will be delivering two 1-hour Idea Labs, "How to Significantly Increase Enrollment, Retention and Graduation Rates with the Millennial Generation," and "Significantly Increase Contract Training Sales by Building Stronger Relationships with Business & Industry," and a 2-hour Deep Dive session, "How to Attract and Retain More of the Right Students, in the Right Programs, for the Right Reasons" at CareerTech VISION 2012. For more programming information, visit

Mark C. Perna is the founder of Tools for Schools in Cleveland, Ohio, a full-service marketing and consulting firm that specializes in the CTE field. He has worked with schools, districts, and statewide organizations of all sizes across the country to help them achieve significant gains in enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. Mark can be reached via email at
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Title Annotation:Leadership Matters; retention of Millenial Generation students
Author:Perna, Mark
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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