By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD
Ten years ago, the unemployment rate was running high. Businesses needing to hire found themselves in a “buyer’s market.” This was what I wrote back then:
There are plenty of people looking for work. This results in more applicants to pick from for each opening. High unemployment has also served to limit employment options, thereby reducing worker mobility. The result is that employee churn rates are—or at least should be—decreasing. Having more applicants to pick from and fewer staff leaving by choice should be indicative of stable workforces. Unfortunately, this may not be the case and even if it is, it affords false security.
Consider the following employees. Although their names have been changed and some details obscured, all describe the true plights of real people:
Chuck worked in a small satellite office of a large organization. The staff in his office were close and worked together well. They cared for each other and were like family. They helped each other to complete their work and serve clients, regardless of job description and title. Sadly, this idyllic reality ended when corporate closed Chuck’s office to save money. Some people were let go, but Chuck was told that he could work remotely from home. Then Chuck got a new boss, who rescinded that promise. Chuck now commutes 120 miles each day to work. The corporate office is nothing like his old office. Teamwork has been replaced by finger-pointing and blindly following job descriptions; no one cares about the clients—or about each other. One by one, Chuck’s coworkers have quit or are being let go. He fears he is next and is frantically looking for comparable work closer to home.
Carly is a college graduate whose chosen profession currently has a 40 percent unemployment rate. Unable to find work, she went to grad school. Her summer employment offered her a full-time position when she graduated but has been frustratingly vague on the details (right now she is relegated to computer work no one else wants to do). Unfortunately, this job is not in her field of study, nor does it interest her. However, out of necessity, she may be forced to take this job. Even if she does, she doesn’t expect to remain long.
Danielle also recently graduated from college. Her college internship continued after graduation, with the promise of a promotion when the economy turned around. She is now doing the work she was trained for—but without the title, recognition, or pay. This has been going on for a year. Although she is now working full-time, it is at her part-time hourly internship rate—or 40 percent of what is typical. She has polished her resume and is looking for better paying alternatives.
Karl has a full-time job in his chosen profession. At first, he liked his company and earned stellar reviews. However, in his latest review, he scored the lowest in each category. Last year, after their busy season, a coworker was abruptly fired. Karl fears that this year he will get the ax as soon as the seasonal peak is over. He is salaried and was initially told to expect working an additional twenty-five hours a week during the busy season. However, his employers recently tacked on an additional ten hours. He desperately wants to find a new job but has no time to pursue it. As soon as things slow down, he will begin his job hunt in earnest.
Larry greatly enjoyed working in his chosen career, finding it rewarding and fulfilling. However, after a planned move out-of-state, he was unable to find work at his level of experience and education. He eventually acquiesced to a much lower position at less than half the pay. The company promotes from within, so he hoped that he would eventually move into a position matching his skills and have his compensation level restored. Unfortunately, because he was performing a low-level position, he was looked down upon and demeaned by those who should have been his peers, in spite of the fact that he had more experience than some of them. The circumstances became so dreadful that he left, taking an even further pay cut in the hopes of finding a nicer place to work. Once again, he has the expectation to be promoted and, although feedback on his performance is very favorable, there are no current openings, so he could find himself repeating the process.
These people share two common characteristics. First, they do not like their employers or their jobs. Some have been lied to, others have been treated badly, two are significantly underpaid, and all are unhappy. The other commonality is that each of them desperately wants a different job and is working to make it happen. Since they have stellar qualifications and employable skills, their job expectations are not unreasonable. When the economy turns around, they are sure to find better work.
From this we can interpolate that:
- Employees are unhappy, but they continue to endure difficult work situations—for now.
- Many people are underemployed; they will correct that as soon as companies start hiring again.
- Some people are working outside their fields of expertise. For many, this is not a choice but a short-term necessity.
- When an entry-level employee sticks around after graduation, it may not mean that they like the company, but that there aren’t any other options.
What does all this mean?
- When the economy turns around, many employees will immediately seek to improve their work situations. Some reports indicate that one third of the workforce is waiting to change jobs.
- The most employable people (likely the best workers) will be the first to switch; those who lack skills or drive will stay.
- There is pent-up worker frustration, which employers will be confronted with when alternative employment options emerge.
What can employers do?
- Begin thinking and behaving as though unemployment is low and it’s a “seller’s market.” Treating employees better now, when you don’t have to, will keep them working for you later, when they don’t have to.
- Recognize that with downsizing, layoffs, hiring freezes, and consolidations, employees have been stretched and pushed to a near breaking point. Look for ways now to relieve stress and reduce their pressure now.
- Talk to employees and really listen. Perhaps there are slights that can be amended, injustices that can be corrected, and oversights that can be righted.
You can take steps now to keep the employees you have, or you can wait for economic recovery and take steps then to find and train their replacements.
[Update: As predicted, all five found new jobs once the economy turned around. Three found success quickly, but the other two required a bit more time—because the recovery was a tepid one.]