Finding the best way to mitigate the brain drain that occurs when a generation of experience leaves the workforce is a monumental task confronting businesses worldwide.

Intern Tanner Parsons works with John Brautigam, a 25-year Siemens employee.

Intern Tanner Parsons works with mentor John Brautigam, a 25-year Siemens employee.

Companies are devoting time and resources to determine how they can maintain an informed and knowledgeable employee base during this generational transition – including Siemens, one of the largest manufacturing and electronics companies in the world.

In an effort to solve the knowledge gap, Siemens is turning to the next generation. The company is tapping Clemson University marketing students to determine the best ways it can transfer knowledge from those leaving the workforce to those entering it.

“This is a unique opportunity for undergraduate students that makes perfect sense,” said associate professor Jennifer Siemens, who along with assistant professor Anastasia Thyroff, is overseeing the three-year Creative Inquiry research project.

“Siemens is getting the perspective of young people about to enter the workforce to look into an issue that companies everywhere are dealing with. Engaging the next-generation workforce to find answers on how to transfer knowledge within an organization makes sense,” Jennifer Siemens said.

Leadership at Siemens’ U.S. Energy Management unit recognized a significant percentage of its sales and engineering workforce were becoming retirement eligible. That’s when Kevin Yates ’94, president of the Siemens division, said strategies for a knowledge transfer program were put into place.

“Many technical industries are facing a major challenge in the coming decade,” said Yates. “A generation of experienced and technical resources are about to retire, leaving a potential void of historic knowledge and relationships.”

Being an industry that draws from STEM fields, Siemens is not immune to this challenge as the number of STEM graduates entering the traditional electro-mechanical fields is lower than those leaving, Yates said.

“We are exploring how to find effective and efficient ways to translate this knowledge to a new generation of technical professionals with different value systems, access to different technology and a more dynamic business environment,” he added. “The Clemson Creative Inquiry project is helping us connect academics and practical application to solve this challenge.”

Students in Siemens’ and Thyroff’s marketing Creative Inquiry class gathered information on the generational issue and conducted interviews and focus groups during the spring semester. Students on the project, managed through the Watt Family Innovation Center, will present their recommendations to Siemens officials in Atlanta this fall on how institutional knowledge can be transferred to less experienced employees.

The Siemens-Clemson partnership is courtesy of a nearly $130,000 gift from the German-based company to Clemson’s highly regarded Creative Inquiry program, according to Barbara Speziale, director of Clemson’s Creative Inquiry program and associate director for Academic Affairs, Watt Family Innovation Center.

“Siemens’ approach for this CI project is particularly novel and enlightened in that they are asking Clemson millennials how to get young people entering the workplace to benefit from the experience of their older counterparts,” Speziale said.

She said in any given year, about 400 CI projects are ongoing that involve about 3,500 students. The primarily undergraduate class research program’s projects are generally funded by state money, but some do receive private money from companies like Siemens.

“Our Creative Inquiry model is not about doing tasks or simply answering questions. These are very smart, young minds that are probing a company’s issue and identifying solutions,” Speziale added. “Results from a CI like the Siemens project is a great tool for students to take into a workplace. Not only are they getting to know this company, they’re showing they know how to attack a problem, and present results.”

As part of the project, two senior marketing students are interning at Siemens locations this summer. Tanner Parsons of Windermere, Fla., is working in technical sales in Tampa and Helen McDowell of Charleston is employed in construction sales in Siemens’ Atlanta location.

“We really have dual roles in our internships,” Tanner said. “Not only are we getting to know the company in our specific jobs, early on we are doing observation-based research as it relates to the generational knowledge transfer,” Tanner said.

Added Helen, “As we get more familiar with the company, Tanner and I will be looking more into how people learn their jobs, where they go for help, and other issues new employees deal with. And, we hope to conduct a joint focus group at one of the Siemens locations later this summer.”

“The students bring a unique perspective to the issue Siemens has presented us,” Thyroff said. “They can look at the generational transfer of knowledge issue through a different lens than, say, a mainstream research organization would. Siemens’ decision to tap millennials’ viewpoint is not only innovative and wise, the students are able to showcase their competencies in addressing a real-world issue.”

# # #