Monday, March 7, 2011

Most Want to Change Jobs, But Most Are Not. What's Going On?

Almost every day lately, I see that some firm has done a survey to see what percentage of workers plan to change jobs over the next 3, 6, or 12 months. The answers are pretty consistent: while the majority of workers are unhappy with their current employers, the majority (presumably a different majority) do not plan to change jobs.

Why is this? First off, the job market is still horrible. Companies are still implementing layoffs. Companies that are hiring generally are not doing it across the board. And, perhaps it goes back to the old story about the devil you know being better than the one you don't.

Let's consider the unhappiness, though. Where is this coming from? I'm going to state up front that I am not a fan of the pay ratio comparisons that many (including last year's Dodd-Frank Act) have called for. The ratio of CEO pay to the average pay for everyone else, or to the median pay for everyone else is often not a useful comparison. And, when it's not useful, it's often misleading. But, let's face it, total compensation in the US for CEOs has risen faster than total compensation for most everyone else. In fact, when a CEO is credited for growing profitability, it may be partially (or more) because he or she has cut labor costs.

This creates a very interesting dynamic where the pay ratio that I mentioned in the last paragraph becomes more distorted at least in part because the CEO is doing what shareholders asked him to do. While not fitting any of the cutely named paradigms (Occam's Razor, Hobson's Choice, Morton's Fork), it seems to be a combination of all of them without necessarily having the characteristics of any one.

All this having been said, in virtually all of the surveys that I mentioned at the top of this post, the single biggest reason for dissatisfaction is compensation. The surveys don't ask whether compensation is cash or cash plus benefits, but I don't think it matters. The fact is that across-the-board pay (cash) raises have largely disappeared in recent years. Even during the booming economy (it's ok if you don't believe the economy was really booming then) of late 2002 through mid 2008, pay raises were far smaller than they had been at almost any time during my lifetime. But, in addition, benefits have been cut.

Let me repeat that -- benefits have been cut. This doesn't mean that employers' cost for benefits has gone down. What is does mean is that the value to employees of those benefits has gone down significantly. Let's consider.

  • Defined benefit plans continue to be frozen or terminated. The 'replacement' 401(k) plans are nowhere near as generous, on average.
  • Health plans, over my working lifetime have gone from 'employer-pay-all' (or almost all) traditional indemnity plans to 'employee-pay-lots' non health insurance plans (the less cynical among us call them high-deductible health plans or consumer driven health plans). Employers can point to their costs having increased at rates far greater than inflation, but employees' costs have increased at rates that dwarf those absorbed by employers.
  • Other benefit offerings have increased, but as often as not, those increases are at no direct cost to the employer. Yes, it is nice as an employee to be able to buy some useful benefit at negotiated group rates as compared to individual ones, but the amount that the employer is spending is at or near zero.
At the end of the day, pay for the rank-and-file is increasing (slowly), but purchasing power is lower. The only thing, in my opinion, that has helped to maintain purchasing power is highly available credit. But, as we all know, that seems to be on its way (if not already there) to being  a thing of the past. 

So, as the cost of daily life increases, the value of employment decreases and the value that goes to retirement decreases. Employees want to work longer, but employers seem to want them to work for shorter durations. Employees want more purchasing power, but employers provide them with less. But the grass doesn't seem to be any greener on the other side. So, of course employees want to leave, but the problem is that they can't find anyplace they want to go.

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