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Young Workers Don’t Want Sales Jobs. How To Convince Them Otherwise

Dec 17, 2015

Dear Annie: I liked your recent column about whether automation and A.I. can replace salespeople, but my question concerns an even more pressing problem. How do you get young people interested in technical sales jobs? In our case, the role also involves a lot of consulting. We’re a logistics-software company, planning our 2016 campus recruiting now, and we'll start looking for next summer’s interns in just a few weeks. The thing is, we’re expecting to be up against the same lack of candidates as in past years — which is even worse now, since almost half our senior sales staff is getting close to retirement and we have too few Millennials in the pipeline to replace them. Can you suggest any ways to persuade young people to at least consider sales as a career? — Seattle Sam

Dear Sam: “When I was in college in the ‘80s, there was such a stigma attached to any kind of sales job, applying for one was considered a last resort. It was what you did if nothing else worked out,” says Eliot Burdett. “Unfortunately, and unfairly, that hasn’t changed much.”

Burdett is now CEO of headhunting firm Peak Sales Recruiting, which counts Procter & Gamble, Merck, Deloitte, and many others among its clients. He's also co-author of a free e-book, Sales Recruiting 2.0, you might find useful. Burdett hears your question from managers at plenty of companies, and he thinks it's partly because negative stereotypes about sales have only gotten worse.

“Hollywood and television portray salespeople as greedy buffoons,” Burdett observes. “Then you have pervasive myths like the notion there is such a thing as a ‘born salesperson,’ or that only extroverts need apply. All of that is inaccurate. But pop culture is powerful. It turns young people off from thinking about these jobs."

A recent study from the Harvard Business School’s U.S. Competitiveness Project found that employers spend an average of 41 days trying to fill technical sales roles, versus 33 days for jobs in other professions that call for similar skills. The same study describes a cloud-based software company that lost millions in revenues because it couldn't hire enough sales reps. “A big reason these jobs have been so hard to fill,” Burdett notes, “is that Millennials have not wanted them.”

There’s some irony here. When surveys ask Millennials and Gen Z what they hope to find in the workplace, they usually talk about things that most careers in technical sales offer. So your recruiting efforts should focus on countering false stereotypes with the (far more appealing) reality.

“It’s all about getting the word out,” says Burdett. “This is why employee-referral programs work so well. You need young people who are thriving in the field to reach out to other people their age. Someone the candidate's own age who is happy with their work, and successful at it, is your most convincing spokesperson."

Burdett recommends keeping in mind that “being chained to a desk is Millennials’ worst fear, and they despise the idea of ‘face time.’ They’re inherently mobile, and they want to be able to work from anywhere.” So talk about the opportunities salespeople have for travel and remote work, including telecommuting. “Sales is not a 9-to-5 job, and salespeople who meet their numbers are rarely, if ever, questioned about why they weren’t at their desks,” notes Burdett. “That’s if they even have desks.”

Moreover, Millennials, and Gen Zers now in college, repeatedly tell pollsters that they want to “make a difference” in the world and do work that helps others. Adecco Staffing USA’s 2015 Way to Work survey reports that appealing to this group requires recruiters to “emphasize opportunities to make an impact or to ‘own’ important projects.” Burdett points out that helping clients work through their logistical dilemmas, as your technical salespeople do, fits this bill neatly. So in interviews, be ready to describe some real-life situations where your sales team has solved clients' problems, and why that mattered.

Two more thoughts: First, lots of Millennials joined the workforce in the wake of the financial crisis and “they’re the first generation in recent memory who are worse off financially than their parents,” says Burdett. “So, as a group, they have less confidence in the economy, and they favor stability in their income over volatility.” In response, many companies have been moving toward “softening” compensation packages, Burdett says, to raise the ratio of base salary to commissions, providing more of what he calls a "safety net," especially for young hires who are brand-new to the field.

And second, if you’re not already doing this, try to concentrate your recruiting efforts at schools that offer for-credit courses and other formal training in sales. There are now more than twice as many of these as there were in 2007, and “they can give you a head start, since they have a ready-made pool of candidates who know what sales is all about, and who have some training in it,” Burdett points out. “And increased academic interest in sales means that companies have a real opportunity to work with universities to build a talent pipeline.” The nonprofit Sales Foundation’s most recent list of these schools is available here.

Good luck.

Talkback: If you’re in sales, what made you choose it as a career? Do you agree that the reality doesn’t match the stereotypes? Leave a comment below.

Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email askannie@fortune.com.

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