Are workers changing jobs more frequently than ever?

September 7, 2010 by Wally Bock

Carl Bialik’s “Numbers Guy” column in the Wall Street Journal is often devoted to myth busting. Last week’s column, titled “Seven Careers in a Lifetime? Think Twice, Researchers Say,” was a good example. He busted more than one myth.

Bialik started by testing the claim that “the average U.S. worker will have many careers—seven is the most widely cited number—in his or her lifetime.” I’ve heard that one. It’s usually attributed to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Nope. They don’t even track “careers,” probably because there’s no way to do it effectively. Even so, “the figure is erroneously attributed to BLS so often that the agency includes a corrective memo on its website.”

Ok, you may be thinking, perhaps “careers” isn’t the right word. We do know that workers are changing employers more than ever. Right? Well, no. According to Bialik, BLS and other researchers have analyzed that one, too.

“Their findings suggest that job stability hasn’t changed all that much in the U.S. since the late 1990s. For example, the typical American worker’s tenure with his or her current employer was 3.8 years in 1996, 3.5 years in 2000 and 4.1 years in 2008, the latest available data.”

This is important myth-busting. I think the idea that workers are leaving their employers more often than ever can easily lead to the belief that high turnover is natural. The corollary to that belief is that if people are going to leave anyway, it makes no sense to invest in recruitment, training and retention.

I’ve been in business for a while. Here’s what I think I know about how people join companies and why they stay.

There are and always will be game players. They’re the people ready to jump ship for an extra cup of grog. After the first few moves, you should be able to spot them and avoid them.

People seem to change jobs more frequently in the beginning of their careers. This hasn’t changed at least in the time I’ve been in the workplace.

Most people want to stay in a good place. But you can drive them away without exerting too much effort.

Research by Sirota Survey Intelligence has found that almost 60 percent of those who leave a job in any given year have been at their company less than two years. Why?

One reason might be hiring to fill a slot, instead of hiring for fit. Several companies we studied in my latest book, Ruthless Focus, took specific actions to assure that new hires were good fits and knew what they were getting into.

Atkins and Pearce, a textile firm in Covington Kentucky puts a lot of effort into hiring the right people for their culture. The results are impressive. The average tenure for workers on the day shift is almost 15 years. Even for less desirable shifts the average is more than a decade.

Another reason could be that the company made no real effort to make a new hire a productive part of the organization. “I’ll-be-with-you-in-just-a-minute” and “watch-what he does” onboarding are far too common. Patrick Williams at Guerilla HR outlined onboarding problems and fixes in a 2007 post called: “Welcome to the team!”

And, of course, there are awful bosses. People may join companies, but they leave bosses. One investment you can make in improving your turnover is to improve the quality of your supervision.

Rapid turnover is not inevitable. But it’s up to you to make the changes that make your place a better place to work.

Wally Bock is a coach, a writer and President of Three Star Leadership.

Posted in Selection

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