Employee Retention: From Thirty Years to Two

The United States has never been known for permanent employment. The flexibility of our job market, the ability of employers to hire the employees need and fire those they don’t, has always been considered by economists to be a core attribute of our competitiveness in global markets.

But today, the shoe is on the other foot. The Greatest Generation, those who fought in World War II, were the last group to seek lifetime security with one employer. The last of the Silent Generation (1925-1945) have moved into retirement, and the Boomers are beginning to follow them in droves. Today’s workforce expects regular advancement and career opportunities, but those are no longer guarantees of long-term loyalty to their employers.

Generation X is moving into management and executive roles. Advancement for competent GenXers is almost guaranteed, since there is only one of them for every retiring Boomer. The Millennials (1980-2000), are currently one-third of all active workers, and by 2020 will comprise half of the employees in the country.

Any business owner has learned to look at resumes in a new light. Those who are still seeking long (5 years or more) tenure in employment histories are probably hiring older workers. A typical 30 year-old’s application today may list a half dozen prior positions. If they are talented, their previous terminations were likely voluntary as they moved into jobs that paid more, or had some feature that they found interesting.

But the positions we fill, both white and blue collar, have become more complex, require more training, and thus have a longer payback period for training costs. Technology makes  jobs more demanding. Machine operators don’t just push a button or tighten a nut. They are expected to comprehend tolerances and quality measures. Administrative workers can’t get by on typing skills alone. They use software and telecommunications in a variety of overlapping ways.

multitaskingAn assistant handles my schedule. Ten years ago that meant telephoning and asking a client, or their assistant, to coordinate an open date. Now she communicates with each client according to their preferences. Some still want to be called at the office. Others prefer contact via their mobile phone, email or text message. Calendar requests must consider the type of scheduling software they use. Some are multi-modal, preferring an initial email inquiry, with dates and times confirmed by electronic meeting requests and reminders via text message.

When it takes a year to reach a level of efficiency in a job, how do you invest in an employee whom you only can expect to stick around for two or three years? The jobs can’t be dumbed down; we need smart folks to handle them. The Great Recession, which made a steady position a bit more attractive, is over. Talented workers can be expected to resume their migratory employment styles.

Small employers are stuck in a paradigm that doesn’t match the market. There is no point in dangling a promise of steady employment when our prospects aren’t attracted by that carrot. Just as technology has flipped the information curve in sales (see my friend Jim Blasingame’s The Age of the Customer), the ability to seek, apply for and even interview for a new job online (perhaps even from your office) is changing the dynamics of recruiting and retention.

What do you do to recoup your investment in training? Have you accelerated ramp-up times or changed your training regimen? Are you adjusting your expectations for employee longevity? Do you still come in every day with the fantasy that all your employees will be there forever?

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My new book, Hunting in a Farmer’s World: Celebrating the Mind of an  Entrepreneur, is now available on Amazon in paperback, hardcover and Kindle. It is an ownership book, not a management book, and is illustrated with the stories of real entrepreneurs who faced challenges that apply to us all.



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2 Responses to Employee Retention: From Thirty Years to Two

  1. cathy locke says:

    Thanks for the article, I am a “baby boomer” and agree totally! I was laid off after 6.5 years and after a year of being a ” you are too qualified for the position”, I decided to do something I could enjoy, and taught myself how to become a wholesale/retail Chocolatier! I have 4 years in the “business” and am finally growing and have learned a lot the hard way and I am more unique and happy. I do have 2 part time assistants that I feel will work,learn,grow with my company…but nothing is permanent so each day is a new door that I can open and enjoy the challenge. Thanks again!

  2. Zbig Skiba says:

    Good blog, John. Per studies, money is well down the list of reasons for employee retention. If I’m not mistaken the employees relationship with their direct manager is #1, followed by other factors such as company culture, ability to learn, their passion for the company mission, etc. So retention boils down to doing some tough work around making your workplace an appealing place to come every day, rather a place to dread. That’s not as easy as it sounds, for a small business person who focuses on meeting his payroll.

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