In 2015, Millennials (those 18-34 years old) became the largest generation in the workplace. Five years from now, they'll comprise half of U.S. workers. This dramatic shift, combined with the retirement of millions of Baby Boomers, will have a profound effect on the A/E business in the years ahead. Is your firm ready for the change?

Last week I conducted a workshop on how to develop younger workers for leadership roles, with a particular emphasis on Millennials. In our first breakout session, I asked participants to identify which generational differences they found most challenging in their workplaces. The discussion turned into a gripe session about the perceived shortcomings of Millennials—their work ethic is lacking, their methods of communication too shorthand, they have a sense of entitlement, etc.

It hardly sounded as if they were ready to give Millennials a larger stake in their respective firms! Fortunately, over the course of the day, the group seemed to gain a better understanding of what made their younger colleagues tick, and even how those frustrating differences might be leveraged to the firm's advantage. Since I know many of you probably have some of the same concerns, I thought I'd share some of the conclusions we discussed in our workshop:

Millennials will need to advance faster than previous generations, and that's just what they want. Millennials are distinguished by their ambition. But most of my peers seem to think they have unrealistic expectations about how quickly they can move up the organization chart. Shouldn't they have to wait their turn like us Boomers did? Given the pace of this workforce transformation, it's impractical to expect Millennials to advance as slowly as we did. We're going to to have to fast-track their development—for the sake of our companies.

Get ready: Some things you should consider in this regard: Formalize your professional development process, spelling out what is needed to advance from each level to the next. Clarify career paths. Provide real-time coaching. Rethink the qualifications for advancement, especially in terms of required experience. Don't hold your young stars back because of arbitrary or outdated policies.

Millennials are more engaged than you think, but harder to hold on to. Given their reputation as job-hoppers, you would expect Millennials to exhibit lower levels of employee engagement. But the difference isn't substantial. According to Gallup, 29% of Millennials are engaged, compared to 33% for Boomers and 32% for Gen Xers. The most recent Modern Survey U.S. Workforce Study found no statistical difference among the generations in terms of engagement. Moreover, Millennials were much more likely to recommend their employer to others or see a promising future there.

But that same study found that 36% of Millennials were currently looking for another job elsewhere (compared to 30% for Gen Xers, 19% for Boomers). A remarkable 91% expect to stay in their current job less than three years, according to another study. Why the disconnect between engagement and retention? It appears this generation's aforementioned ambition trumps loyalty to their employer.

Get ready: Don't assume you can't retain your Millennial employees; many firms are quite successful at it. And don't hold back on investing in them because you think they won't stick around; that will ensure they won't. More than any generation before, this one will force you to earn their loyalty. Maybe that will push some workplace improvements that are long overdue—and that will be a good thing.

Money talks to Millennials, but not as loudly as work flexibility. A common complaint is that younger workers aren't as committed to their jobs. The truth is that they take their careers very seriously, but not at the cost of enjoying life. They believe it's possible to have productive careers without sacrificing everything else (a lesson many Boomers wish they had learned years ago). Thus Millennials give priority to work/life balance and schedule flexibility, even if it means lower pay.

To call this evidence of a poor work ethic is misinterpreting their motives. The research shows that Millennials are typically hard workers, but not in the traditional 9-to-5 way. In fact, any real differences in hours worked has been found to be more related to position than age. Give younger workers greater responsibility, and they usually rise to the occasion.

Get ready: Talk to your younger workers to learn how they perceive your work environment and what changes they would like to see. Be prepared to make more concessions on flextime and telecommuting where it doesn't compromise teamwork or productivity. Review your paid time-off and parental leave policies, considering reasonable changes in response to employee feedback. In general, shift management focus to achieving consistent outcomes versus enforcing routine methods.

Millennials can be effective team players, but perhaps not in the traditional sense. They are the most connected generation ever, but it's arguable how well they're actually communicating. Millennials are more prone to collaborate than their older coworkers, but prefer doing it electronically. The research is mixed regarding how well they function as team players. Some of the confusion may result from a clash of customs—they value teamwork but approach it differently. To get the full benefit of their contributions, you may need to as well.

Get ready: Review your work processes in light of the multigenerational dynamics present in your firm. Remember that technology is changing the way we work, and Millennials are best able to use it to its full advantage. Modify your work processes to fit your people, not the other way around. Give some ground to the ways younger workers are most productive; that will shape how work is done in the future. But establish clear standards regarding what's expected of everyone regarding teamwork.

Millennials want to do meaningful work, which you're probably already doing but don't express it very well. Our younger coworkers are looking for more than money and success; they want significance. Engineering, architecture, and environmental firms do important work, but often do a poor job describing its significance (for evidence, check your project descriptions). We serve people, help communities, solve big problems, make life better. But too often we make our accomplishments sound like little more than completing a technical scope of work.

Get ready: Make a concerted effort to better articulate the real value of what your firm does, both externally and internally. Include meeting strategic and personal needs in your work descriptions. Connect your work to the larger issues that your projects are designed to address. Review your core values, vision, and mission. Are they purposeful? Inspiring? Revise them if necessary. Also get your firm involved in meaningful volunteer work, or at least support those employees who do so on their own.

Millennials also need to learn the value of business. This generation has been taught that profit is evil, businesses are greedy, and capitalism is inherently unfair. Don't assume they'll be inspired by your quest for business success. Of course, how Millennials feel about business is often based on faulty or incomplete information. For example, a disturbing 53% of Millennials view socialism favorably, but only 16% can accurately describe what it is.

Get ready: Teach younger workers the truth about the positive contributions your business and others make to society (see the previous point). Explain why profit is important, and not just to line the pockets of firm owners. Share financial information openly, which has many benefits including not suggesting that there's something to hide. Give appropriate emphasis to nonfinancial performance metrics, particularly those that resonate with employees (like client service, quality, safety, etc.).

Millennials need more feedback, and they deserve it. I think it's fair to say that this is probably the most coddled generation yet. For example, note the hypersensitivity to being offended that's emanating from college campuses these days. Likewise, they crave regular affirmation, direction, and encouragement. Unfortunately, most workplaces are notorious for the lack of such feedback. As evidence, consider Gallup's finding that two-thirds of U.S. workers felt they had not received recognition on the job for the last 12 months!

Millennials (and everyone else) deserve better, and not just to soothe their sensitive egos. Research makes clear that providing more feedback and recognition significantly improves business performance. Positive reinforcement, in particular, is a powerful method for bringing out the best in your employees.

Get ready: Determine how to increase feedback and recognition in your firm, with special emphasis given to Millennials. Annual performance reviews aren't adequate. Consider monthly or quarterly reviews at a minimum. Develop a training process for bosses, as they are critically important in retaining staff. Assign mentors to your younger workers.

Millennials aren't as different from other workers as you probably think. There is a growing body of research that indicates that generational differences have been overstated. As with categorizing people based on personality type, the common stereotypes about generations are easily misapplied. One large meta-analysis of generational studies concluded that there were too many contradictions and inconsistencies to support many of the popular assumptions. Other studies have found that all generations are looking for much the same things in their work.

That's not to suggest that significant differences don't exist—they do. But in many cases they are misunderstood or temporary. Millennials, just as the rest of us when we were that age, have some growing up to do. Some of the differences that frustrate us now will subside as they gain experience and take on more responsibilities in their job. Many of the differences can be leveraged to your firm's advantage with a little creativity.

The Millennial Makeover is not something to fear, but it does demand our attention. Successful A/E firms will need to adapt to the growing influence of their younger workers. Business as usual won't cut it. Are you ready?