Tom Brokaw: “We need an adult in here right now!”

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Tom Brokaw

Our coverage of SHRM 2012 wrapped on Wednesday with Closing Session Speaker and legendary NBC newsman Tom Brokaw. He kicked off his speech with a joke about having to follow Jerry Seinfeld, who was the featured entertainment on Tuesday night.

“He’s the margarita; I’m the hangover,” he joked.

Brokaw’s talk soon became serious as he said that he’s never seen the country so bewildered, wary and in some cases, cynical, he said. The economy has stalled. A generation of young people who entered college four years ago is now graduating without jobs. And when they move back home, they’re finding parents who are unemployed.

In light of these circumstances, Brokaw had a message for the HR professionals in the room. “It’s incumbent upon all of us, especially those of you who have the kinds of jobs that you do, in which you’re interacting with employees, to engage in a national conversation,” he said.

Brokaw also referenced the November election and said he had an answer for those wondering about his favorite candidate: “I wrote it down before I came over here, but I left it at the hotel, unfortunately,” he quipped.
At the same time, Brokaw added, there is still a lot of time before November, and anything can happen. “Think about the ‘UFO theory’- the unforeseen can occur between now and the first Tuesday in November,” he said.

He spoke again about the young people coming out of college who are wary and don’t trust the big companies for which they may work. “But these young people are a floating resource. They’re not going to lock onto one company,” said Brokaw. “They will make a different judgment about what they want out of the workplace than their parents and grandparents.”

This generation is also a “sharing generation vs. an ownership generation,” Brokaw said, partly crediting social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter for creating this dynamic. “Anyone who is responsible for building a workplace needs to be aware of that,” he added. “We are operating in an entirely different world these days, but have a retro attitude about how we can go forward.”

Brokaw spoke of the bifurcated state of the country. Half of the country is in a rage and doesn’t believe in anything, he said, and the other half has given up on the institutions they’ve cherished and counted on.

Yet amid this divided country, Brokaw lamented, we are winding down two of the longest wars in U.S. history.  Almost all of those who fought in the wars came from working class families from rural America or the inner city. “Nothing was asked of the rest of us,” he said. And unless you personally knew of someone who fought, “it was out of sight, out of mind. That’s just unjust in a democratic society.”

But now with the troops coming home, Brokaw said that we have an opportunity to “correct those wrongs.” He told the HR professionals in the room that they have a real opportunity in their workplaces, as well as in their personal lives, to make this a high priority, meaning helping those veterans get back to work.

And the benefits will be plentiful. “We’ll learn about each other, about job training and about mission orientation,” said Brokaw. “These people are unbelievably motivated and skilled.”

He told a story about a young captain returning from Afghanistan. When the 22-year-old went for a job interview, the hiring manager told him he didn’t have much experience. The captain then responded with a litany of his responsibilities, which included working with village elders, helping them find a decent water supply and managing a squad. The HR office realized he had been wrong.

Brokaw then brought up the big ideas and moments that have significantly changed this country. The GI Bill. The Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act. The counter-culture movement of the 60s. Landing on the moon.

He then spoke about what he believes is the next big idea in this country. Brokaw’s own desire is to have the country’s six public service academies offer training programs. And these training programs would be private-public enterprises, with companies such as John Deere, he said.

A person would study at the school, spend some time working abroad or at home in a disadvantaged area and then return to the partner company for three years. “These people will bring back new languages, new understanding of culture and will have three years to prove themselves,” said Brokaw. “Then, the companies will have an employee who is well beyond his years in terms of maturity and understanding.”

Brokaw addressed the massive debt of the young people coming out of college. He believes that we need to have specific training for young people coming out of college who can instantly become productive members of our economy and society.

“It is a form of public service for the 21st century,” he said.

Brokaw then asked the audience to think about what historians will say about our time. While information technology has transformed our society, he said “we need to unleash that same entrepreneurial spirit that built that technology on the other issues we have in this country.”

He ended with a hilarious anecdote about camping with his wife and granddaughters, and how the couple left the two young girls alone in the cabin while they sat right outside. At one point, his granddaughters came running out. “We NEED an ADULT in here RIGHT NOW,” one demanded.

Brokaw then said to the SHRM audience, “I think that needs to be the mantra in this country,” he concluded, drawing laughter.

Next year, the annual SHRM conference will take place in Chicago, and Adecco will see you there!

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