5 Reasons Why Traditional Employment Is in Trouble

May 9, 2012
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

According to the U.S. Labor Department, 2.1 million people resigned their jobs in February, the most in any month since the start of the Great Recession.

This is startling given that the economy is not strong and that millions are out of work. The natural inclination would seem to me to be to hunker down and hang on to the job you have, no matter how bad it is. That is what happened in previous recessions. Yet these were disgruntled, unsatisfied, and unfulfilled people who voluntarily, many without other positions or jobs lined up, chose to leave.

In discussions with some of them, I heard talk about feeling they having been used to bolster executive salaries and inflate shareholder expectations unrealistically. Many felt unappreciated and disrespected — a word I hear a lot now and never used to hear at all.

And with eroding benefits and the potential of better access to health care, the hold that corporations used to have is loosening.

I think we are seeing the early signs that the attitudes and expectations of the emerging and experienced workforce are changing faster than many thought likely and that traditional firms may find it harder and harder to employ the best people.

I among others have been predicting that the age of the entrepreneur is dawning — a time when more and more people are confident and optimistic about working for themselves, offering their services for a fee to someone who needs their skills. Many of the ones I speak with are convinced that this is a better way to feel fulfilled and be prosperous than the daily grind of going to work for an employer.

The success of crowdsourcing sites like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and other sites where anyone can offer their services for bid such as elancer or freelancer say a lot about what is happening. It has become relatively easy to offer products for sale on sites such as eBay or Craig’s List or to find a match between your skills and the needs of someone else.

But many corporations and recruiters are in denial. They will not agree that a significant number of people feel this way but at the same time they will not deny that it is hard to find, attract, close, and retain the skilled talent they need. And as Baby Boomers start to retire and move out of the active job market the gap will grow.

It does not take a crystal ball to see the signs of change.

Expectations Have Changed

People expect work to be engaging, interesting, and fulfilling. Younger people even feel it should be fun. The organizations that offer project-type work, work that poses a challenge, or work that fulfills humanitarian needs, are not having much trouble finding good people. Gen Y, those in their 20s, have been the pioneers in changing attitudes and in showing that individuals can find work that is fulfilling and earns money — often by working independently or by joining a very small firm or startup.

Choice, Not Control

People want to be empowered to make decisions, to be free from bureaucracy and administrivia. They know they have a lot to contribute and are frustrated when seemingly meaningless rules and procedures are put into place with no consultation or discussion.

Firms like Brazil’s Semco are run as democracies, and employees have the power to decide almost everything. For the past few decades this, along with Gore-Tex in the U.S., have been storybook examples of how organizations may look as we move into this century. The hallmarks for success include participation in decision-making, freedom over schedules and work assignments, and fair, transparent, and equitable pay based on contribution.

A Focus on Employment Branding

But, in lieu of making these painful changes to structure and existing practice, firms are instead focused on using the power of advertising and image-shaping to enhance or create an employment brand in the hope of attracting people.

Most employment branding efforts use Madison Avenue-style tactics to raise interest in a company. The campaigns are expensive and require immense effort, but there may be a period of time when more good people are attracted to a firm. The downside is that once hired they may quickly move on if the hype is not reflected in practice.

Semco, on the other hand, has no trouble attracting great people primarily through referral, word-of-mouth, and by the quality of the products and services they offer. Historically, very few firms have had to resort to expensive branding campaigns to attract the people they needed. Talented people with the right skills sought out the firms. This is why the employment market has always been skewed toward the employer who has been able to set salaries, offer the benefits it wanted to offer, and carve out jobs with minimal regard to the candidate’s or employee’s needs or desires.

Firms such as Lincoln Electric, Gore-Tex, IBM, and recently Facebook have little need to do overt employment branding because their employees do the recruiting for them.

More Interest in the Candidate Experience

Also, almost in acknowledgement that they have not done a good job in providing a candidate with a positive experience — with good customer service — when they apply for a job, there is now more emphasis and interest in improving that experience.

Gerry Crispin of CareerXroads has long been an advocate for improving the candidate experience and has tirelessly worked to get firms to make substantial changes in how they deal with a candidate. Recently he has created the the Candidate Experience Awards to further enhance this effort.

But it is unfortunate that he has to do this. It is simply another sign that the tide has turned away from traditional employers to the smaller firms that do care about the candidates and do listen to them and offer decent service.

More Effort and Money Being Placed on Becoming Listed as “The Best Place to Work”

Many firms spend thousands of dollars in fees and salaries to compete for a Best Place to Work award. Many have full-time employees dedicated to this effort for a significant time period while also ramping up employment branding activities.

Again, this is only viable because there is not enough natural interest in these firms to attract good people.

As traditional organizations try to fit round pegs into square holes, the smaller startups and enlightened larger firms are finding it easier to hire good people.

Good people are attracted to places that are in alignment with their needs, attitudes, and intellect, and those places are increasingly organizations that are flexible, fun, empowering, respectful, transparent, and flat. But the dinosaurs didn’t evolve successfully and I doubt that larger firms will either.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.