Job-Hopping Jumps Along With Economy

Companies at the mercy of 'short-timer' attitude they once promoted

When his company announced a layoff of 500 workers, Sam Harkreader wasn't worried. In fact, he volunteered to leave.

But it wasn't another job offer or a generous severance that made him jump ship. It was the high-rolling economy.

"I wanted more aggressive opportunities, and there are so many out there right now," says the production planner, who worked for the company in Freeport, Texas, for seven years.

The economy is on a roll, and the companies that once laid off now struggle to add on, aggressively recruiting for positions from sales clerks to computer programmers.

And American workers, with a bold new sense of security, are changing jobs, even careers, frequently and voluntarily.

It's a huge shift in attitude from two years ago, when the rampant downsizing of the early 1990s left many workers clinging to jobs they didn't want.

At the same time, downsizing destroyed workers' corporate loyalty. Now they're loyal to themselves, what one magazine calls Brand You. And in an age when real job security lies with keeping skills current, that means following the opportunities.

"Two years ago, people were very scared. They were very uncertain about the economy and the prospects for finding another position," says Terry Devlin, a career counselor at Career Management International in Houston. "Right now, there's euphoria on the part of people who are looking for positions. They're confident, even excited."

Robust economy

Why shouldn't they be?

The economy seems to be creating jobs faster than companies can fill them.

Mr. Devlin, who counsels a lot of chemical engineers, says they often have three or four offers before they finish their rsums.

"You'd think that would be good news," he says, "but frequently it's unsettling because they wonder what could be out there if they really got diligent."

Many tickets in tech

Many companies - particularly those in high-tech - say they're having a hard time curbing this jump-ship mentality.

Cambridge Technology Partners in Cambridge, Mass., pegs its own turnover rate at 20 percent.

"Some of this seems out of our control," says Kathleen Hubbard, director of human resources.

Many employees who decide to leave, she says, do so because they get unsolicited calls from headhunters promising a $20,000 bump in salary.

"Anyone with a family and bills is definitely going to listen to that," she says. "But we can't go back and offer everyone $20,000 more, or we're out of business."

But it's not just high-tech workers who are reaping the rewards. Everyone from engineers and accountants to aircraft mechanics, electricians, cashiers, and hamburger flippers is in high demand.

For people like Mike Scrudato, the opportunities have been too good to pass up. In the past three years, he has worked at three different companies.

His latest move, from a major accounting firm to an insurance company, brought a 40 percent pay increase and the chance to earn an MBA on the company's dime.

Like Mr. Scrudato, Mr. Harkreader says he's surprised by the response. He's already had three inquiries and one offer since he left his job last month. He's also considering starting his own business providing payroll services to small businesses.

Multiple choices

What he didn't count on was having so many options.

"I'm so excited about my own entrepreneurial opportunities," he says, that he's not sure he wants to work for someone else. But the offer he's currently contemplating, he admits, is hard to pass up.

"If I were going to work for someone else, this is a dream job," he says.

Harkreader concedes that if the economy wasn't growing - currently the national unemployment rate is 4.8 percent, the lowest in a quarter century - he would have stayed put.

What's changed?

For him, it boils to down to one word: security.

The red-hot economy gives him the confidence that he and his family won't have to make sacrifices because of his job search and transition. He also knows that he can take the time to pick the right opportunity.

Julia Hartman, author of a new book called "Strategic Job Jumping" (Prima Publishing), is a big advocate of workers changing jobs frequently. She's followed her own advice: She has changed jobs 10 times in 15 years.

"Everyone is coming to the conclusion that it's worth something to their career to develop marketable skills," Ms. Hartman says. "Sometimes you can develop your skills more quickly by changing jobs."

WHAT TO NEGOTIATE BEFORE SIGNING

* Salary, signing bonus, matching investment program, stock options, pension, insurance.

* Vacation, paid travel for spouse, frequent flyer miles.

* Child care, parental leave.

* Flexible work hours, job sharing/working from home.

* Relocation, cost of living adjustment.

* Computer for home.

* School loans, tuition reimbursement, training.

* Company car, gas allowance, expense account.

* Social/athletic club memberships, professional membership fees, product discounts.

An important tip: Negotiate in two meetings. Use the first to define the job and related matters. Set aside the second exclusively for compensation.

Source: Personnel Decisions

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