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Unhappy but gaining confidence, more workers seek new jobs

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / June 19, 2011

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The long economic recovery has created a workforce full of short-timers.

Even as companies slashed pay and increased workloads during the recession, many workers were happy just to have a job. Now, as the economy slowly improves, many disgruntled employees who waited out the worst of it are ready to jump ship.

Nearly two-thirds of employees are testing the job market, according to the 2011 Deloitte Human Capital Trends report. Another study by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. found that 1 in 3 people want to quit their jobs this year.

“It’s amazing to think that more people voluntarily left their jobs in the past year than were laid off,’’ said Eric Mosley, chief executive of Globoforce, a Southborough company that provides employee-recognition programs. “There’s a lot of disquiet, a lot of unhappi ness in corporate America.’’

The overall employment market is far from robust, as US employers hired cautiously last month and the national unemployment rate rose to 9.1 percent. Still, the labor market is much improved from two years ago — when US employers shed jobs by the hundreds of thousands. In addition, workers in certain industries, such as technology, are in strong demand.

As workers gain confidence in an improving job market, a big dam is about to burst, employment specialists say. In some cases all it takes is one discouraged person leaving a company to give others the courage to do the same thing.

“It’s like someone leaving a party at 11 p.m.,’’ said Bob Kelleher, founder of Employee Engagement Group, a Waltham workplace consulting firm. “Someone asks, ‘Where is my coat?’ and 15 people stand up.’’

Plenty of people have been standing up — and walking out — at a Boston online media company, where about 10 people quit in the past year because of miserable working conditions, according to a 30-year-old former employee.

Like all the disenchanted employees interviewed for this story, the woman declined to be identified for fear that it might hurt her job prospects.

The woman quit her job in February, fed up with how she was being treated at the 200-person firm where she had worked as an office administrator for six years. Everything changed when the business was acquired by a larger company in 2007, she said: Raises shrank, annual team-building trips to Las Vegas and Cancun disappeared, promotion opportunities dried up, and the stress levels skyrocketed.

“The feeling was just, ‘Be grateful. Be grateful you have a job,’ ’’ said the woman, who is studying for a public relations degree.

“If you weren’t making the company any money, you weren’t really important.’’

Turnover in normal times is around 15 to 20 percent, but during the recession it fell to around 5 percent, creating pent-up demand as people waited for better times. On top of that, many workers who stayed are unhappy, faced with longer hours, smaller raises, and fewer training opportunities. Forty percent of employees say they feel their companies don’t care about them, according to a recent nationwide survey by Globoforce.

More than two-thirds of local employers plan on hiring in the next year, according to a March survey of 100 firms by Professional Staffing Group. Yet few of them — just 17 percent — were concerned about holding onto their workers, with most offering only small raises and limited training opportunities.

That makes top employees vulnerable to poaching by other firms. Recruiter Bruce Allen, of Point B Search in Wakefield, recently lured a 26-year-old Boston sales executive into a new sales job that came with a higher earnings potential, more career advancement opportunities, and a shorter commute. At his old company, he was putting in extra hours and not getting the bonuses he had been promised.

“They kind of took advantage of the economy,’’ he said, “paying lower salaries and blaming it on the economy, and the company was still growing substantially.’’

But a year ago, he wouldn’t have considered leaving: “I felt insecure about what was going on out there. If I was going to jump into something, is it going to be there in a month or two?’’

Hiring and training new employees is a major expense, but disgruntled workers who don’t quit can also cost a company money. Disengaged workers cost US employers about $460 billion a year in lost productivity, according to Gallup research.

But keeping employees happy doesn’t necessarily require a big investment, said head hunter Joe Madden of Harbor Legal Search in Boston. It can be as simple as ordering in lunch on Fridays or reinstating the company picnic. “Surprisingly enough, it’s the smaller things that keep people in the door,’’ he said.

Even a simple “Thank you’’ goes a long way. A former human resources director said he was grateful to be laid off late last year because the environment at the 600-employee Boston nonprofit where he worked had become toxic. After the institution started struggling financially, raises diminished and workloads increased after about 50 people were let go.

One laid-off employee was an organizational development trainer, which meant fewer opportunities to learn new management skills after he left. On top of that, the president started pushing employees to launch new initiatives, but didn’t recognize their extra efforts.

“People said to me, ‘You know, a thank you would be nice,’ ’’ said the man, 64, who is still looking for work. “It’s so much easier to manage when things are going well.’’

K atie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com