Lokesh Ravichandran works out over his lunch hour Friday, April 27, at the Healthy Fitness Center at Cerner's Innovations Campus. Ravichandran, an associate senior software engineer, said the workout re-engerizes him and allows him to focus on the logistics of his work. Tammy Ljungblad | tljungblad@kcstar.com

What companies want: millennials. What they're offering: massages, student loan help

The Cerner Innovations Campus in Kansas City. Tammy Ljungblad | tljungblad@kcstar.com
Pavani Gioranth, a software engineer at Cerner's Innovations Campus, takes a Zumba class alongside other employees over the lunch hour on Friday, April 27, in the Healthy Fitness center located on the campus. The fitness facility is free to employees and is often filled with 20- and 30-year-olds. Tammy Ljungblad | tljungblad@kcstar.com

It's a culinary school and a fitness complex. On some days, it's a farmers market.

"This is the culmination of everything you’ve been waiting for," pitches Cerner Corp.'s website dedicated to the upcoming crop of college graduates.

In its nonstop hunt for young talent, what Kansas City's medical-data giant does not pitch very hard is that it's a corporation.

Employers everywhere know that millions of millennials favor independence and choice. On laptops they can launch start-ups from a couch. Famous for protesting the ways of Wall Street, many are drawn to Uber, eBay, freelancing and other parts of a burgeoning gig economy that lets them earn a living without answering to The Man.

But their skills are needed.

So companies seeking young professionals are crafting benefits to help employees be purposeful, proudful and personal.

Not minions.

Human resource managers say benefit options should integrate job life, home life and social life to address the "whole person" rather than just the one in the cubicle.

This is the year to do it. The 2018 graduation season ushers into the workforce the tail end of the largest American generation of all time. And they're facing arguably the best job market that the under-35 demographic has ever known.

Though this generation's bookend ages have always teetered, the nonprofit Pew Research Center set the years of birth between 1981 and 1996. That places more than 56 million millennials in the job market, now outnumbering baby boomers.

The youngest are about 21 and are wrapping up four-year degrees.

In 2015, the U.S. workforce's "on-demand" revolution lured 3.2 million people, mostly millennials, to Uber, Amazon Flex and other app-driven gig platforms. According to software consultant Intuit, that number will more that double by 2020.

The challenge for conventional employers is to coax this generation into the office 9 to 5.

For some time, the Grant Thornton accounting firm has been among the more innovative of major employers rolling out appealing perks.

Here's the latest: free breast-milk delivery.

New moms at Grant Thornton can pump while on business trips and have the milk shipped overnight to their babies in Kansas City.

The company has a deal with a California outfit called Milk Stork to address a practical dilemma for young working mothers. That's in addition to benefits such as unlimited days off and $100 reimbursements for adopting rescue animals.

Workplace recruits anymore "want employers to recognize all those important aspects of their lives and not just their life at work," said Jessica Robino, human resources manager at Grant Thornton's downtown office.

At Pro Athlete Inc., a Northland-based online retailer of sporting goods, unlimited paid time off — so long as your tasks are done — is part of its "empowerment culture."

Besides creating an environment in which Pro Athlete workers wish to stay — most are in their 20s or 30s — plum benefits make sense from a practical standpoint: Today's techies can be be tomorrow's competitors.

After all, "anyone these days can download Shopify and be running their own online (stores) in a matter of months," said chief operating officer Andrew Dowis, himself a millennial at age 33.

Pro Athlete perks that older workers would likely never expect include no-cost health coverage, weekly massages and free meals all day at work.

Still, newfangled benefits may not be the ticket to get young, creative professionals in the door.

"The thing that draws me the most is making decent money," said University of Missouri-Kansas City music student James Taylor.

As for that free breast-milk delivery, fellow music major Jelica Montelongo was not impressed.

"If I had a newborn and was off on a business trip, I'm not sure I'd trust a company delivering my milk," Montelongo said. "I'd just rather an employer have a policy that I don't have to travel far if I'm breastfeeding. Maybe that's the better benefit."

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Debt, pets, ID theft

Many companies have buffed up packages to include assistance to relieve crushing student loans, free gym memberships, smartphone discounts, protection against identity theft and paid time off for staff to attend charity causes.

"There's a social aspect to the work environment that we think is important" to younger employees, said Julie Wilson, executive vice president and "chief people officer" at Cerner Corp.

The social aspect includes Cerner campuses offering monthly cooking classes, dog-walking services, days in which local farmers bring in their organically grown produce and personal financial planning.

Elders might grumble that a generation who grew up pampered with praise and participation trophies must now be coddled in their careers. But many employers see it differently.

"Millennials are expecting a different work experience, and that's affecting all workers positively," said Chris Gould, director of global talent acquisition at the Kansas City headquarters of Black & Veatch engineers.

Some ideas have come from what the company calls its "young professional employees resource group," which regularly meets and swaps emails.

Newer benefits across the region include:

Help with student loan obligations. In 2013, the Society of Human Resource Managers reported only 3 percent of employers offered assistance for college-debt repayment. It's since become one of the hotter trends in benefit packaging. Plans vary, but the idea is to help new recruits reduce student debt quicker either through outright payments or professional management.

According to a recent survey by the Boston-based nonprofit American Student Assistance, 76 percent of college students said such offers would be a deciding factor in accepting a job, as the average debt on a bachelor's degree is around $30,000.

Identity theft protection. Last year, a surge of well-publicized cybersecurity breaches prompted employers to jump on this inexpensive benefit — one especially relevant to workers whose lives have revolved around digital devices and social media.

Nearly seven out of 10 human resources departments in a 2017 poll reported evaluating identity theft coverage for employees, whether on or off the job. "A hacked employee is a distracted employee," says the website of the security vendor CyberScout.

The Federal Trade Commission has found that some theft victims can spend more than 1,200 hours putting their lives back in order — time spent not working. For a few bucks a month, companies are providing apps that monitor and alert subscribers to unusual credit and data activity.

Backup child care. For parents in an unexpected pinch — on school days or when a sitter is ill — "backup child care can provide care the day of the need," said Grant Thornton's Robino, who is president of the Kansas City-area chapter of SHRM. "There are options for center-provided care or in-home care."

Flexibility. Working from home is old-school, but unlimited vacation time?

"They have to get their work done on time," explained Pro Athlete's Dowis. "But millennials don't like to be micromanaged. So long as they get their work done, we don't care when they ask for time off.

"They don't want to abuse the unlimited PTO benefit (paid time off) because they know they're fortunate to have it."

Black & Veatch offers a plan called 9-80, which allows employees to complete two weeks of work in nine business days so they can take every other Friday off.

Increasingly, flexibility applies as well to the entirety of benefit packages.

"You're not in a one-size-fits-all model anymore," said Cerner's Wilson, noting that younger employees especially expect to pick and choose.

At all hours inside the 17,000-square-foot fitness center at Cerner's new south Kansas City campus, employees mostly in their 20s or 30s work up a sweat. They dance to Zumba. Company-issued apps offer personalized exercise regimens, addressing the worries of many recruits that desk jobs could affect their posture and overall wellness. The center is also available for free to family members and dependents.

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Younger employees also seem more eager than their elders to attend company classes. A 2014 Metlife study found that 51 percent of millennials "strongly value" educational programs directed at managing their personal finances and even planning their retirement. Only 39 percent of boomers valued those programs.

"When millennials hit the workforce, they hit in such large numbers," said Robino. "They had the negotiating power."

Do benefits matter?

At a UMKC cafeteria, three freshman friends recently cramming in a light meal said nice benefit packages weren't so important. They just seek secure, well-paying jobs.

Pet insurance?

"I'm not a pet person," said Ryan Milanovich, 19.

Super-flexible time off? Meh.

Let's say you can take as much vacation whenever you want provided you've fulfilled your work duties.

"When is anyone's work really done?" replied Montelongo, also 19.

The one benefit trend that grabbed these students was assistance in paying off student loans.

For Kansas City start-up founder Benten Woodring, 28, the best benefit is being able to work at his own pace and enjoy time with his two toddlers.

Eight months ago, the Benten Design owner left a company that offered decent benefits but needed him to work nights and weekends.

"Now I have a ton of flex time," said Woodring, a graphic artist.

But to launch a business in your 20s is not easy, nor inexpensive. And the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which tries to help entrepreneurs do it, says college debt is driving more people to a conventional workplace.

U.S. Census data show new business creation — including one-person start-ups — dropping to about 450,000 in 2015, down 25 percent from the peak years of the early 2000s.

The foundation's Larry Jacob said corporate benefits help attract graduates, but the greater desire is to start paying off their debts.

More and more, he said, "they just want that regular paycheck."


What companies want: millennials. What they're offering: massages, student loan help