To stay innovative, companies must constantly anticipate the next big disruption to their industry. Sometimes that shakeup comes from people within the organization. For IEEE, it could come from the leaders of its Young Professionals group. They have become ever more vocal about the need for IEEE to modernize its offerings to gain and retain members, especially younger ones.
“It’s no secret IEEE is an aging institution—both in the average age of its members  and in its approach to what today’s engineers need from it,” says Senior Member Rafal Sliz, the 2017–2018 chair of IEEE Young Professionals. “IEEE must accept the fact that for young professionals, belonging to an association no longer carries the weight it once did. But we are still the future of the organization, and we care about its success.”
Young professionals have been taken seriously enough that one of the key initiatives supporting the goals of IEEE’s 2015–2020 Strategic Plan is to “provide more opportunities, products, and services aimed at increasing our value to professionals working in the industry, particularly younger professionals and entrepreneurs.”
And this year, for the first time, a representative from the Young Professionals group has been appointed as a nonvoting member on the IEEE Board of Directors.
“Not only are our young professionals the future of IEEE, but they are also an integral part of IEEE’s core strength,” IEEE President Karen Bartleson says. “Their enthusiasm and sense of camaraderie helps bolster our efforts to build strong partnerships and cooperation with industry leaders and others worldwide. Their efforts will shape our profession in profound ways—and in ways we can’t even anticipate.”
The IEEE Board approved the first year’s activities in the group’s three-year business plan, which recommends ways to retain and attract young professionals. Along with the approval came US $250,000 for research and pilot programs.
The three-year plan got underway this year. If it succeeds, every member is likely to benefit.
SPREADING ITS WINGS
The IEEE Young Professionals group has been undergoing a transition in the past few years. It wants to be taken more seriously. It was established in 1998 as IEEE Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD). In 2014 the group’s leadership recommended that it be renamed. GOLD, it said, did not resonate with the people the group was meant to engage.
Another recommendation in 2014 was to change the qualifications for the group’s members. Now IEEE members who graduated from university fewer than 15 years ago are considered to be part of IEEE Young Professionals. The previous limit was 10 years. Members beyond the 15-year mark are allowed to join, too, when they renew their annual IEEE membership. The reasoning is that career-based services targeted at young members also could benefit anyone who is changing careers or pursuing graduate work.
The group, which decided it needed to raise its visibility, rolled out its plan last year for organizing more networking events, forming partnerships with other IEEE groups and societies, and improving communications with members through blogs, webinars, and other means.
It had more than 100,000 members and 180 Young Professionals groups around the world in 2014, but membership was on the decline. The overall age of IEEE members was increasing. And a study showed that only 43 percent of YP members were “satisfied” with IEEE’s offerings.
Moreover, although nearly 80 percent said they wanted to become more involved with IEEE, about 75 percent said they didn’t know how to do so. They reported being unaware of opportunities, nor could they tell how much of their time some projects might require. Last year membership in YP dropped by more than 3 percent.
The seven-person Young Professionals executive committee developed the three-year business plan to address those and other challenges to increasing membership.
The plan’s goals include developing a platform for volunteering opportunities, expanding current networking programs, providing more money for local projects, creating a program that recognizes loyal volunteers, and investigating offering discounts on IEEE technical content.
“We realized we couldn’t address all the needs, so we decided to first focus on retention and satisfaction of our members and volunteers,” Sliz says. Needs related to career development will be addressed later, he says.
HAVING A SAY
The IEEE Board for the first time invited a dozen Young Professionals members to attend its annual three-day retreat, held this year in January in Kapolei, Hawaii. The goal: to brainstorm ideas for shaping IEEE’s future and for ways to assist underserved communities. One suggestion was to support entrepreneurship as a way to engage young IEEE members and young people in general.
To that end, the Board endorsed the creation of what it calls a “global entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem.” It will start by supporting entrepreneurial activities in three to five developing countries that already have a strong IEEE presence. Countries are selected for economic reasons: low gross domestic product, low per-capita GDP, and youth unemployment of greater than 20 percent.
The IEEE entrepreneurship ecosystem leverages all the diverse assets the organization has, including articles and publications, videos and, most importantly, volunteers who can serve as experts and mentors. The IEEE Entrepreneurship program is supporting the effort.
“I believe we’ve gained enough momentum to show the organization that young professionals are able to make a difference,” says Sliz. He estimates that most of the programs proposed will be up and running by 2019.
This article is part of our December 2017 special issue on young professionals.