Millennials As Emerging Leaders
Younger Generations Are Key to the Future of IH and OEHS
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Today’s workplace is like nothing we’ve seen before: it’s a melting pot of five different generations, we are globally connected, technology enables most of our work, and we are all finding new ways to be resilient, adaptable, and collaborative. As the workplace has changed, so has the path to leadership among younger generations. How will emerging millennial leaders guide us through this rapidly changing world?
A MILLENNIAL WORKPLACE According to an article published in PwC Australia’s Digital Pulse, workplaces will be dominated by millennials by 2025, when they are expected to make up about 75 percent of the workforce. Pew Research Center considers anyone who was born between 1981 and 1996—currently ages 26–41—to be a millennial. A key question for workplaces and professions is, how markedly do millennials differ from previous generations? Recent research provides some insights that suggest that the millennial generation is distinguishable from the ones that came before in a few notable ways. For example, a report published by Gallup in 2016 found that millennials change jobs more often than other generations. Gallup’s data showed that six in 10 millennials were looking for a new job at the time the report was developed. The Australian organization FYA, which has produced seven reports in a research series called “New Work Order,” estimates that individuals in this generation will have up to 17 jobs and five different career paths in their lifetimes. Gallup describes millennials as employees who are driven by purpose and development.
Trends like these present important challenges in the fields of industrial hygiene and occupational and environmental health and safety. If our professions don’t adapt to the differences of the millennial generation, we risk losing incoming professionals at an alarming rate, draining valuable knowledge from the industry, and creating leadership deserts. Our field is already trying to close the knowledge gap with the next generation by recruiting students into the profession and attracting professionals with other scientific backgrounds to move into OEHS and IH roles. A similar phenomenon is occurring in other fields, such as engineering, where there is a lack of talent coming into the profession as fewer students study subjects like mathematics. Another concern is “brain drain” as baby boomers with expert knowledge retire. Professions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are foundational to solving challenges of the future, supporting society’s operations, and keeping everyone safe. How can employers tap into the passionate, purpose-led millennial generation and create future leaders from within?
How can employers tap into the passionate, purpose-led millennial generation and create future leaders from within?
When it comes to IH and OEHS, professional organizations like AIHA, the British Occupational Hygiene Society, and the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH) recognize the need to support future leaders by creating career paths and certification schemes based on technical competencies. Current guidance on this subject includes AIHA’s Core Competencies for the Practice of Industrial/Occupational Hygiene and AIOH’s Career Development Pathway program. These organizations also have numerous committees and volunteer groups that encourage young people to get involved. Employers, mentors, and sponsors must support professional and personal development in the workplace as millennials step into leadership roles.
This is not to say that there are not yet millennial leaders in IH and OEHS; several younger professionals have already distinguished themselves as leaders in this field. But we need to ensure that we’re keeping the doors open for new leaders to emerge. Programs such as AIHA’s Future Leaders Institute, which is designed for professionals with three to 15 years of applied work experience, help to further strengthen the leadership skills of early-career professionals.
“JUNGLE GYM” CAREERS As many of today’s workplaces have changed, so have career paths. In the book Lean In, author Sheryl Sandberg, who served as chief operating officer of Facebook, describes career paths today as jungle gyms rather than ladders. The traditional “rung-by-rung” approach may seem non-negotiable in a field like IH that requires strong scientific expertise, but a lack of leadership opportunities or room for professional advancement might push professionals from younger generations to move on. How can employers provide opportunities for professional development and progression in a more flexible way so that early-career professionals don’t necessarily have to “tick all the boxes” of a linear career path?
One suggestion involves the use of career pathways and competencies like those developed by AIHA and AIOH to outline the steps that young professionals can take in their careers. But instead of forcing professionals to complete each step before moving on to the next, employers should consider departing from the ladder model and encouraging professionals to focus on filling in the spaces where they feel there are deficiencies. Resources such as career pathways and competencies are meant to support young professionals in their development, not to hold them back from taking the next step “too soon.”
The following recommendations are intended to help emerging leaders navigate shifting career paths and to suggest ways employers, mentors, and others can support their professional development to benefit entire organizations.
ADVICE FOR EMERGING LEADERS Are you interested in becoming a leader or continuing your path to leadership in the IH or OEHS field? This section contains tips for developing your leadership skills.
Lead yourself first. What kind of person might come to mind if you were asked to picture a great leader? You may think of someone at the front of a room making an inspiring speech, someone who appears on the front page of the newspaper, or someone who is known as a “go-to” person in your industry. Don’t let this intimidate you; these examples represent people who have likely spent years honing their leadership skills. If you are a millennial or an emerging leader, you can take the first step in your jungle gym career by learning to lead yourself first. It is difficult to lead others if you are not clear on who you are or aspire to be as a leader.
To use the famous iceberg metaphor, the leader that people see can be equated to the 10 percent of ice visible above the water, while the much larger portion of ice hidden underwater symbolizes the work of leadership that occurs on an individual level. This “below-the-surface” work includes becoming self-aware, understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and defining your goals and vision. It also involves looking inward to identify your blind spots, uncover your biases, and banish false beliefs like not feeling “good enough.” This process can help you clarify what you want to communicate to others regarding who you are and what you are about.
Learning to lead yourself first requires self-discipline and habit over time. Mastering this skill can provide a strong foundation of inner confidence, making you a more effective leader for others.
Set and share your goals. It is important to both know your goals and communicate them to your mentor, sponsor, or manager, who can help you build a plan to achieve them. These individuals may also be able to help you access opportunities that might not have been obvious to them without knowing your aspirations.
If you need help setting or further developing your professional goals, resources such as career counseling through AIHA or the AIHA mentoring program might be a good place to start. Consider creating a variety of goals in technical, leadership, and management areas. You can gain experience in many ways—for example, by leading a project or volunteer group, by participating in a project in a technical area that you’re not yet familiar with, or by taking a professional development course to increase your knowledge in a particular area.
The Australian organization FYA estimates that millennials will have up to 17 jobs and five different career paths in their lifetimes.
Create your own leadership experience. Being a leader and influencing people doesn’t always require a specific job title, and you don’t need to wait for someone to tap you on the shoulder for a leadership opportunity. Create your own by getting involved in an ongoing project or starting a new one. For example, consider looking for a need within your organization or a way to work on something that interests you. You could volunteer to run an event, lead a project or a team within your professional network, suggest an idea for improvement to your manager, or solve a “pain point” yourself. Creating your own experience might look like identifying a problem, like a lack of diversity in your profession, and working to inspire a new generation of diverse people to get excited about the field. Whatever the experience, all it takes is an idea, initiative, and action.
Examples of leadership experiences created by early-career professionals include initiating research on adolescent volunteer first responders (in this case, surf lifesavers) based on an observed need, starting a nonprofit to recruit more women into engineering that stemmed from an event for high school students, and launching a communications group in a national IH association to improve engagement among and provide more information to members.
SUPPORTING THE MILLENNIAL GENERATION While millennials have a key role to play in the future of the workplace, the people on the other side of this equation, who have the power to amplify and accelerate the incoming generation’s leadership, are an important balance. This is where more experienced generations, sponsors, managers, and employers come in.
Intergenerational collaboration. Leveraging age diversity within organizations to ensure the flow of knowledge across generations has been fundamental for many emerging leaders to get projects off the ground, find sponsors and investors, and ultimately create change in industry. Entrepreneur Chip Conley demonstrates the power of this type of partnership in a TED Talk in which he shares his story of being a wisdom worker collaborating with a millennial in order to do his job.
Conley was brought in to mentor an Airbnb team because of his extensive knowledge of the hospitality industry. On arrival, he realized he had little to no knowledge of how a tech company works. He paired up with an expert in tech, a woman in her twenties, who “translated” for him. The two worked brilliantly together and learned that they needed each other to solve the complex challenges they faced.
This story is not unique to Conley; there are many opportunities for wisdom workers to help create space for younger generations to step in. Another opportunity for professionals across generations to learn from each other could be for early-career professionals to shadow leaders in an organization on a rotational committee or in a board member role.
Sponsoring emerging leaders. In the Harvard Business Review, author Janice Omadeke describes sponsorship as “phase two of mentorship.” While similar in some ways, sponsorship differs from mentorship in that it is about more than sharing knowledge and providing guidance. Sponsors go a step further in advocating for younger professionals by expanding their visibility through actions such as introducing them to their networks or recommending them for opportunities that will provide career advancement. Sponsors typically have a powerful network and significant influence at senior levels, garnered through a notable career in their particular industry. Yet they generally lack the time capacities of emerging leaders to create movement for change.
In IH and OEHS, sponsors might put an emerging leader up for a promotion or nominate them for a committee position, a board role, or an award. Sponsorship could also mean connecting younger people who might have more time on their hands with committees or projects that a sponsor may not be able to take on personally. A sponsor may also encourage a younger professional to implement an idea or network with the right people to generate change that they lack the time to make. An emerging leader can leverage the sponsor’s trusted relationships and create buy-in among the sponsor’s network, both of which may have been inaccessible to the emerging leader prior to their connection with their sponsor.
Engaging the next generation. Gallup’s latest report about how millennials prefer to work and live found that millennials placed opportunities to grow and learn as their most important job attribute. Nearly three out of five millennials said these opportunities were “extremely important” to them, compared with about two in five Gen Xers and baby boomers. So, how can employers and managers provide opportunities for emerging leaders to advance more quickly (that is, diverge from a traditional ladder career path) in fields like IH and OEHS that require technical expertise?
We recommend providing millennials with room to learn, interesting challenges, and professional development opportunities. This might include giving young professionals “stale” problems to solve and seeing what new solutions they propose. Their fresh perspective coupled with not knowing the difficulty of the challenge or the previously proposed solutions might lead them to an innovative solution.
Professionals of younger generations also seem to focus less on long-term career paths and more on the short-term future, and millennials are the generation most likely to switch jobs, as discussed in an article published in Gallup Business Journal. Signing on to one- to two-year contracts or working on a project basis are becoming more attractive to many younger professionals. Employers could provide business rotations or project-based assignments to help support the preference for short-term work or to align with professionals’ technical competency goals. (As with any generalization, this is not the case for all younger workers but is an increasing trend.)
You don't need to wait for someone to tap you on the shoulder for a leadership opportunity.
Gallup’s report notes that, in addition to being driven by purpose, millennials “want to understand the big picture,” including a sense of a company’s organizational purpose. Employers and managers can address this desire by taking the time to learn a millennial’s goals and aspirations and explaining how their role fits into the organization’s mission. Openly and frequently checking in to see what employees are interested in doing and how the company can help them broaden their experiences or reach is another way to improve engagement. Funding continuing education and providing practical opportunities for employees to practice what is learned during coursework or training are further examples of how both employees and employers can grow together through professional development.
HARNESSING THE POWER OF THE NEXT GENERATIONS Organizations that don’t adapt to meet the values of the next generations face two big risks that could be detrimental to business. First, they risk losing some of their most engaged, inspiring, and proactive leaders, and second, they risk getting stuck in outdated cultures and systems. Many emerging leaders of today are no longer waiting for change to happen. If they cannot achieve their goals within existing structures and organizations, they are going out and creating change themselves. The good news for organizations is that these emerging leaders are ready to activate their enthusiasm and energy to create cutting-edge, innovative, and future-forward company cultures.
The story of health and safety professional Subena Colligan, CIH, is an excellent example of what the path of an emerging millennial leader in the OEHS profession can look like. Colligan, who is now an EHS transformation consultant, was motivated to start her own company by her peers who shared stories of feeling “stuck” and not being given the autonomy to impact companies’ OEHS culture in meaningful ways. “As a mid-career professional, many of my peers were either adapting to the way it’s always been done, or frustrated finding ways to influence cultures to be forward-looking in their approach to OEHS,” Colligan explains. This prompted her to seek the opportunity to create an organization where OEHS professionals could combine their innovative ideas with strategy to create world-class OEHS leadership. She believes it is no mistake that the early adopters of her EHS transformation consulting services are in the tech industry, where today’s technologies are already treated as obsolete.
Colligan’s recommendation to harness the strengths of millennials before it’s too late is to “focus on professional development and a workplace that minimizes barriers to innovation.” She cites a 2022 study by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which found that a primary barrier to innovation is fear. The same study revealed that “low-fear cultures” represent 58 percent of innovative companies versus 11 percent with “high-fear cultures.” In addition, a 2022 study of millennials published by the international professional services network Deloitte (PDF) revealed that 29 percent of these professionals chose their next job based on professional development opportunities.
Companies that harness the talents of the millennial workforce in IH and OEHS, continually develop young professionals’ knowledge and skillsets, and provide avenues for them to put their knowledge, skills, and abilities to use can help encourage this generation to remain and grow in an organization rather than seek other employment—or, unfortunately for IH and OEHS, work in other career fields.
WHERE TO NEXT? As professionals of the millennial generation step into leadership roles to guide the future of work, it will be key to harness the power of intergenerational collaboration. There is so much we can do, and we all have a role to play. The question is, how will you lead in this new world?
SAMANTHA CONNELL, CIH, is the global health programs director at Indorama Ventures PCL.
FELICITY FUREY is an engineer, educator, and specialist in emerging leadership and the founder of WeAspire Future Leaders.
Acknowledgement: The authors would like to thank Subena Colligan for her contribution to this article.

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AIHA: “Career Counseling.”
AIHA: Core Competencies for the Practice of Industrial/Occupational Hygiene (2018).
Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists: “Career Development Pathway.”
Deloitte: “Striving for Balance, Advocating for Change: The Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z & Millennial Survey” (PDF, 2022).
FYA: “Our Reports: The New Work Order Series.”
Gallup: “How Millennials Want to Work and Live” (2016).
Gallup Business Journal: “Millennials: The Job-Hopping Generation.”
Harvard Business Review: “What’s the Difference Between a Mentor and a Sponsor?” (October 2021).
McKinsey & Company: “Fear Factor: Overcoming Human Barriers to Innovation” (June 2022).
Pew Research Center: “Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Generation Z Begins” (January 2019).
PwC Australia Digital Pulse: “Why Attracting and Retaining the Top Millennial Talent Is Key to Future Success” (July 2020).