INDUSTRY INSIGHTThought Leadership

The role of youth in the chemical industry’s evolution

By Hasan Alkabeer, Managing Director and Partner, Ankit Gupta, Project Leader, BCG

Sustainability, innovation, and the demand for new skills are pressing priorities across sectors, and the chemical industry is no exception. As with all change, fresh thinking often unlocks fresh opportunities, and one of the most valuable assets for solving these challenges and evolving the industry is the presence of youth in the workforce.[1] With a burgeoning population, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is uniquely positioned to harness the potential of its young workforce and shape the industry’s future through its next generation of leaders. To achieve that, it is crucial to understand youth preferences in the workplace and take action to meet them.

Igniting innovation: The energizing force of young talent

The chemical industry globally grapples with challenges in public perception, and several changes on the horizon can amplify this effect:

  • The focus on sustainability: The push for sustainability globally is driving the energy industry to take a leading role in the transition to cleaner energy and explore new frontiers.
  • The pressure to innovate: Achieving sustainability and diversification goals necessitates innovation in an industry with significant inertia to overcome to enact change.
  • The need for new skills: Digital disruption and the emergence of new technologies demand new skillsets to wield them.

Engaging youth in the workforce, especially in leadership roles, can unlock the creativity and adaptability needed to tackle these demands. Younger leaders have been found to counterbalance risk aversion common among older leaders, and the cognitive tension found in age-diverse teams fosters ambidextrous learning—the capacity to explore new opportunities while leveraging existing knowledge.[2] Not only does the inclusion of youth promote strategic business model innovations, but it can also improve public perception as organizations more closely align their corporate social responsibility with current societal priorities.[3]

The GCC is poised to harness these advantages as it undergoes a generational shift. Approximately 23% of the GCC’s rapidly growing population is categorized as “youth”[4] between the ages of 15 and 29.[5] For comparison, only 17% of the EU’s population is within that range. However, organizations continue to face challenges in attracting and retaining young talent. In the bid for future talent, it is imperative to understand their needs and aspirations.

The young workforce’s wishlist: What drives the next generation

The career priorities of the younger generation underscore the significance of workplace culture, societal values, learning and development opportunities, and personalized experiences. Our findings shed light on the changing dynamics of the workplace and the need for companies to adapt.

The young workforce wants a more personalized experience, beginning with initial contact with a potential employer. Approximately half of BCG survey respondents would decline an attractive job offer if they had a negative experience in any interaction with the employer during conferences, events, or through the recruitment process. Furthermore, the presence—or absence—of company values throughout the recruiting experience holds sway. Both globally and regionally, two-thirds of job seekers report that the importance of environmental responsibility and diversity and inclusion has grown for them over the last year, and half would exclude companies that don’t match their beliefs on either topic.

Once youth have joined an organization, the focus shifts to culture. Company culture and stances on societal issues are important to talent across demographics. Extrapolating from BCG surveys, roughly two-thirds of GCC talent envision an ideal career path as a stable job offering a good work-life balance. Approximately half aspire to attain leadership positions. While these statistics pertain to the entire workforce, the factors considered ‘deal breakers’ when looking for a job vary by age. Younger professionals care more about intangible offerings, such as strong company values, relationships with colleagues and superiors, and meaningful work. They also seek learning opportunities such as interesting job content, challenging assignments, and leadership responsibilities.

Call to action: Steps to boost your organization’s youth

Based on these insights, we have identified four steps organizations can take to boost youth representation in the chemical industry.

Reshape youth representation. Organizations must take a bold and disruptive approach to strengthen the voice of the next generation and invest in their young leaders. One approach is for older and younger leaders to share power and accountability, such as in a co-CEO model. Harvard Business Review (HBR) research has shown that this model yields a positive impact on shareholder value. “Success in this model is dependent on co-leaders having complementary skills, well-defined responsibilities, and a robust mutual commitment.”[6] Additionally, dedicated Youth Councils, such as the GPCA’s own,[7] can serve as catalysts for growth and provide a platform for networking, mentorship, and knowledge-sharing among young professionals in the industry.

Rethink your Employee Value Proposition. Reflect on refining your organization’s Employee Value Proposition (EVP) to meet the specific needs of young professionals. An effective EVP offers high customization for various personas and employee lifestyles and includes benefits across material offerings, development opportunities, interpersonal experiences, and purposeful work. Flexible arrangements and compensation only fall into the first category; cultivating a work culture where employees are connected and mentored through meaningful relationships is a less tangible offering but no less important to consider.

Redefine talent development. Development opportunities should be embedded into the business model not only as HR initiatives but as key strategic objectives driven by leadership. The average half-life of skills is now less than five years due to technological advancements.[8] A systematic and rigorous approach to continuous upskilling and occasional re-skilling is essential to build skillset longevity. Industry partnerships enable organizations to pool knowledge and resources to conduct joint training efforts or invest in niche or innovative capabilities that they may not be able to develop individually. Committing financial support and on-the-clock time to re-skilling, such as by dedicating learning days for employees or covering a portion of tuition for degrees and training, sets employees up for success. It is also another way to show employees that they are valued and add to your EVP.

Reimagine the employee experience. A candidate- or employee-centric, personalized approach at every touchpoint is crucial to creating a positive impression of the industry and bolstering attraction and retention in organizations. Throughout their careers, employees experience several ‘moments that matter,’ such as starting a new role, celebrating a work anniversary, or completing a major initiative. The active management of those moments can have a tremendous impact on the experience of youth in the organization and employees in general, even before hiring. In recruiting, candidates express frustration with the impersonal and outdated approach. Tailoring the hiring journey around the candidate experience and their specific needs from early engagement through onboarding—while aligning with company culture and values throughout—is key. By leveraging relevant technologies and automation, organizations can create a digital employee experience that supports them across their journeys and in those moments that matter most.

Understanding the needs and aspirations of the youth and implementing proactive strategies can enable the chemical industry in the GCC to unlock the immense potential of its young workforce. In doing so, it can drive innovation, foster sustainability, and secure a promising future for the industry and its next generation of professionals.