When the boss helps you find a new job

Perks abound in today's workplace. But here's a new one a growing number of companies are trying out: free in-house job advice.

That's right.

Businesses are setting up on-site career centers that offer everything from one-on-one counseling to skills assessment to crafting a killer rsum.

It's all in the name of retaining top talent. The idea is that such centers make it easier for workers to find new opportunities within a company - opportunities they often don't know exist - rather than jump ship and head for the competition.

"There is such pressure on companies to hold on to the best and the brightest," says Carol Silver Elliott, president and CEO of Rochester, N.Y.-based Career Development Services, which helps companies implement in-house career centers. "The corporate career center gives them the chance to say, 'You can challenge yourself and grow within [our organization] without making a corporate shift.' "

It's a bold move. And some companies shy away from the idea, afraid that free career advice will help their star talent right out the door.

But the businesses that have implemented such centers contend that, while that is sometimes an issue, the perk actually helps reduce turnover.

Sun Microsystems, based in Palo Alto, Calif., opened a career center several years ago. It now says about 10 percent of its 20,000 US workers use the service. Among those who use it, attrition is about three percentage points lower than among those who don't.

"This is a costly program to put in place," says Carol Guterman, career-services program manager for Sun. "But all we need to do is save one or two engineers a month and we've paid for our program, because turnover costs are so high."

Consider Laura Orozco. She started with Sun eight years ago as a telephone salesperson, selling service contracts. After almost two years (she'd been the No. 1 salesperson in her division) she was "bored."

A colleague recommended she talk to a company career counselor. She did. The counselor gave her a skills test and helped her assess what she liked to do. "I saw I wanted to do more problem-solving and be closer to product development," says Ms. Orozco, who studied marketing in college. From there, the counselor helped her network and redraft her rsum. The end result: "Within months I was a project coordinator in the software organization," she says. She stayed in that position 2 1/2 years. "I started getting bored again," Orozco concedes. "But I knew where I wanted to go. I wanted to be in engineering."

She again used the same career counselor to help her navigate a second move into her current position in project management.

"Without this service, I would have left the first time," Orozco concedes. "I needed a new challenge, and I didn't realize what the opportunities were at Sun at that time," she says. "This service opened that up for me."

Plenty of other companies have jumped on board. UnumProvident Corp., based in Chattanooga, Tenn., maintains a virtual career-planning center where employees can check out links to career-related Web sites or make appointments with outside career counselors.

Pacific Bell, which has five on-site career counselors, launched its program back in the late 1980s. Last year alone, workers booked 42,000 appointments with counselors.

And Union Pacific Resources, which recently merged with Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp., provides everything from in-house career counseling to various workshops to career books on tapes available for employees to check out.

The programs are confidential, free, and employees don't have to inform their managers when they sign up.

Many of these programs grew out of outplacement services companies rolled out temporarily during the wave of layoffs in the early 1990s.

The need for such centers today indicates that how to climb the corporate ladder isn't as clear as it once was. Indeed the paths to the top are numerous. And at many large organizations, it's impossible to know all of the opportunities that might exist.

Sun, for example, has anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 job openings at any time.

Matching employees to such slots can be too much to ask of already overburdened managers, who may lack the necessary skills to counsel.

"We would absolutely love it if managers were prepared to do that," says Sun's Ms. Guterman. "But our managers' jobs have gotten so very large. While some try very hard to support the career development of their employees, they don't have a lot of time."

At the same time, managers often aren't unbiased counselors and they have their own issues - such as wanting to hold on to good workers.

"Sometimes I was ready to move on before my managers were ready for me to move on," admits Sun's Orozco.

"In one case, my manager wanted me to wait five years," she adds. "I didn't. Three months later I was doing the job I wanted to do."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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