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Stephen R. Clark
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This article was written for the April 2000 issue of Deadline!, the Indianapolis IABC chapter newsletter. It also appeared in the April 2000 issue of the Indianapolis PRSA chapter newsletter.

Hang or Jump? That's the Question!

Is it okay to change jobs to gain varied experience or is it better to pursue longevity with one company?

Once upon a time life was but a dream of eternal employment at the I M Happy Corp, Inc. You entered the ground floor after graduation and exited from somewhere higher a few years before pushing up daisies. In between, life was bliss and empty of conflict and pain. Now and then, when you least expected it, you actually gained a new skill or two. It didn't hurt too much so you tolerated it.

That was then. But, as that old sage, Dylan, stated in his nasally nascent way, "The times, they are a changin'." Hey, no kiddin', Bob!

Change hits us hard and fast everywhere we live -- and work. Career dynamics are just that -- dynamic. The rules have been flip-flopped, stirred, and shaken, and that was just last week. What it takes to get ahead seems hardly as important as what it takes to keep up. In this brave new millennium, all bets are off.

In Workforce 2020 Revisited: Work and Workers in the 21st Century (Hudson Institute, 1997), authors Carol D'Amico and Richard W. Judy declare, "Globalization and technological innovations are rapidly changing the nature of America's work and workplaces. These changes, in turn, profoundly affect who is doing work and how and where it is carried out."

The fast pace of change has brought us downsizing, right-sizing, reorganization, mid-course adjustment, and a whole rack of new euphemisms to disguise the pain of the stark reality that used to just be called, "My old job's gone! I need a new one! Fast! Arrgggh!"

Some of the fallout of all this? "The uncertainty provoked by layoffs and 'downsizings' has led many people to worry that employment in America is growing more tenuous and less stable, that workers are more frequently tossed about from job to job," say D'Amico and Judy, "One would therefore suppose that lengthy tenure is becoming a thing of the past."

Yes, one would suppose, wouldn't one. What does this mean for today's workforce? Say D'Amico and Judy, bringing it on home: "The new reality, already increasingly apparent, is that most of us will change our employers and even our occupations several times in the course of our working lives. Individual workers must prepare themselves and their families to cope with the new reality, perhaps even welcome it."

Prepare ourselves, maybe. But welcome it? Well, let's talk about that later.

But here's the real rub. While the world around us is changing at a frumious pace, the culture that lives inside our heads isn't exactly keeping up. There's a wee bit of Jabberwockian conflict that surfaces when we start waving our little resume beasties about and ask, "Which is best: longevity at a single company or shorter stints at several?" Add to this the idea of changing jobs to merely gain experience, and we have ourselves a bit of a flummox.

What say others?

Of literature on the Web, only a few serious downsides are mentioned to changing jobs, such as the potential negative impact to one's retirement planning. States Vivian Marino in an Associated Press article, "Gone are the days when employees spent entire careers at one company….While job hopping may mean bigger salaries and new business opportunities, it also can bring financial instability when it comes to retirement planning." But, there are workarounds.

Additionally, every career-related web site includes both the usual cautions and tips for framing your resume in a way to cover what may appear as job-hopping, as well as acknowledging that people are moving through jobs with increasing frequency! Hmmm.

So what's the real scoop? I e-polled a few area HR managers, recruiters, and hiring communicators to get the local pulse. While there is diversity of opinion, there are also some definite areas of agreement.

The case for staying

"I prefer candidates I'm interviewing to have some long-term experience with an organization," said Suzanne Robinson, National Director, Corporate Relations, ITT Educational Services, Inc. "It shows that they're stable and that they won't jump ship for another position that pays a little better or offers a few more days of vacation. That shows me that they're in it for the long haul. I do appreciate varied experience, but not if it means the candidate is a job-hopper. That is not in my benefit."

A bit of longevity, then, is a good thing. Why? "For one thing, it's difficult, particularly in complex industries, to even learn the business, let alone be an effective communicator for an organization, in less than a year," says Marty Spitz, Manager of Employee Communications, USA Group. "I think 3 to 5 years in a particular job is appropriate. Even longer is fine if your experience has not been in only one department and you've been doing other things to show a commitment to learning and growing professionally."

Further, states, David L. Shank, APR, President, Shank Public Relations Counselors, "You cannot gain the business or corporate culture experience by taking off when you 'feel like it.' There is something to be said for someone who stays with a job long enough to learn job survival skills. Working with a difficult boss can be a most valuable lesson."

But what about getting experience?

Change for change's sake is seldom a good thing. Says Shank, "Multiple jobs don't bother me if a person is motivated. However, if it is merely a matter of job-hopping for experience I would have some real problems. There is a much under-rated quality called loyalty."

Dennis Coverdale, VP, Corporate Relations, Roche Diagnostics Corporation, echoes that sentiment, "I would tend to stay way from people who look like they are job hoppers. Why should we spend the time to train and develop them when historically they tend not to stay around? Job hoppers give me the impression that they do not work well with people. If they were unsatisfied with their former jobs, what's going to make them any more satisfied working for my company?"

Gaining experience, learning new skills, and keeping what you've got honed are all absolute requirements to staying alive on the job. Says Charles Handy in his book, The Age of Unreason (Harvard Business School Publishing, 1991), "We can and should be in charge of our own destinies in a time of change."

So, how do you take charge of your destiny, gain experience, and avoid the stigma of being a job-hopper?

Take the journey within

One way is jumping to a new job, but within the same company. How do you know when to do this? "If you are not contributing significantly or learning significantly, it's time to change jobs. If you are not learning, not applying new technology, not testing new methods, not pushing boundaries, you will become stale very quickly," says Virginia Trent, Recruiter/President, GIN/TEK Associates. "Something should always be in the works. Without renewal, you will be of little value to your current or future employers. And, if you are not contributing significantly to your current employer, you are already of limited value."

So where do you turn to become refreshed? "The easiest place to look is a new position within your own company," states Trent.

I agree, especially if the company is big. There are usually a lot of opportunities to gain a variety of experiences. I spent 7 years at AT&T in New Jersey and moved through various business units and positions, from Technical Writing to Employee Communications. The primary reason I left was to return to Indiana, and they offered me a voluntary buyout package that paid for the move. Other factors were the decreasing opportunities in my areas of interests due to endless downsizings as well as the company being split into three distinct entities (AT&T, Lucent, NCR). But while I was there, I moved around, gained a lot of valuable experience, learned how to survive repeated reorganizations, made some great friends, and had a good deal of fun.

Adds Trent, "You need to stay long enough to prove stability and accomplishment. [But] a variety of experiences is best, such as a move into marketing from engineering. Most corporate execs have 'had their cards punched' in each major area of expertise within a business. Some large corporations, General Electric for example, actually have a rotation system to assure rising stars the experience in multiple disciplines."

Take the journey to school

Continuous learning is a necessity. While at AT&T (which is a high tech company!), it was always surprising the number of people, even at high levels, who refused to learn how to use basic e-mail or type a simple document with a word processor. But what wasn't surprising was when these people were always the first marked as "at risk" during a downsizing. Anyone today who refuses to embrace the available technology tools is simply doomed to failure in nearly every career. Learning is essential.

Every company offers at least some opportunity for learning. These can be found through such things as tuition reimbursement programs, company libraries, in-house training, or off-site seminars. AT&T had its own School of Business, as do many other large corporations. Ask around, find out what's available to you, and then take advantage of every opportunity you discover.

Beyond what your company offers, you are responsible for yourself. Read books, business periodicals, and trade journals. Research your career area on the web. Go to your local library and check out interactive CD-ROMs, videos, DVDs, and books-on-tape. Join local trade groups (like the Indy IABC!) and go to every monthly meeting. Take continuing education classes in the evening. Get out and mix it up with others who do the same things you do at other companies. Network and share ideas and information.

A great way to both learn and gain experience is volunteering to help a non-profit organization or a small, struggling business by providing them your professional communication expertise! Teach what you know. Or freelance on the side.

What if I really have to jump?

"Workers will change jobs more often. Rapid change dictated by competitive pressures will force companies to evaluate their staffing needs constantly, which will lead to frequent 're-sizing' of their workforces," say D'Amico and Judy. "As a result, workers will change jobs, employers, and even occupations more often than in the past. Moreover, workers in all occupations will need to prepare themselves mentally and professionally for this uncertainty."

They continue, "Today's firms can succeed and fail with astonishing rapidity….Businesses that expand and contract quickly will be equally quick to hire and discharge employees. The result will be dynamic labor markets as workers change jobs frequently. The phenomenon of 'permanent' employment within a single firm is now almost an anachronism: for the most part, tomorrow's workers will no longer stay with the same firm throughout their working lifetimes."

Jeff McGill, Director, Human Resources, Best Access Systems, concurs, stating, "It used to be that a person would have from 3 to 5 jobs in their career. Today, it's more like 7 to 9, or more. This is in part a result of downsizing. Plus, management has taught people that we won't promise you a job for life, but we'll keep you employable. Now that's what's happening, and management is complaining about it."

You will change jobs, and more than once. Some of the reasons are related to mergers and acquisitions, reorganizations, relocating to a new area, or because the job was just simply a horrible fit.

At AT&T, the job I loved the most was one I had the shortest time: 9 months. I had moved from Network Systems to AT&T Treasury where I was promoted into the Employee Communications Manager position. Just as I was really getting into a groove, my manager came to me and apologized for having to tell me I needed to look for another new job. She knew there was going to be a reorganization, but didn't realize how big it would be, and that it also impacted her. Fortunately, I was able to find a new position in another business unit in fewer than four weeks. It took her a little longer.

The reason I moved to AT&T was from losing my previous job as the Managing Editor at a small book publishing company of about 10 employees. It turned out that the owner, who lived in England, had this eccentric habit of firing everyone about every two years! He first demoted the Managing Director and ordered him to fire half of our staff. He did, and then two weeks later the Managing Director quit. I held on a few more weeks and helped a few others who chose to leave find new jobs. Then the owner showed up unexpectedly, and we had a 'discussion' and I quit. I loved the job and was heartbroken and dumbfounded by the experience. But in only a few weeks, a friend got me into AT&T as a temp and I was hired full time only a few weeks after that. All in all, it turned into a very good thing.

Says Robinson, "The shortest term I spent on a job was two weeks. A week into a desktop publishing job, I knew it was just too narrow for me. And, thanks to the IABC job line those many years ago, I landed another position soon after realizing the mistake."

And sometimes, if the conditions where you are become untenable, life is just too short to spend it tied up in knots from 8 to 5, Monday through Friday! The onus isn't just on the employees to keep things interesting at work. Employers have a responsibility as well. Compensation and benefits are important and need to be good. But also important are treating employees with respect, acknowledging their talents and skills and empowering them to fully use what they know, and providing challenges and opportunities for additional learning and growth.

States Patty Prosser, Managing Partner, OI Career Consultants, "I think the key is for individuals to know what they are good at and what they like to do and make sure their career opportunities are aligned appropriately. Additionally, it's important to recognize that we must be in a state of continuous learning and growth. In doing so we are ultimately creating the need to use newly acquired skills and searching for organizations who can both provide the opportunity to use them and have a vision of the future that makes this possible."

So what is job-hopping?

Okay, so we've learned that job-hopping is bad thing. But what constitutes job-hopping? Simple. There are two things that, combined, clearly mark a person as a job-hopper: Several jobs of short duration with inadequate explanations for the job changes.

How long is long enough? It depends! Says Pam Chase, Director of Human Resources, TranscomUSA, Inc., "For those in a high tech, fast paced industry such as teleservices or information systems, changing a job each year is becoming almost normal. For union shops and even some service industries, they like someone who can stick it out at a job for more than 10 years. Financial institutions like to see someone who has worked their way up the ladder and grown with the company and will be more inclined to hire them because of their loyalty, dependability, and willingness to grow when the company grows."

What is viewed as a reasonable tenure in a position will be impacted by company differences, industry differences, and regional differences. In a region or industry where downsizings are the norm, job-hopping will be more tolerated. In a company that has somehow remained significantly unchanged for decades, or in an area of the country where the job market has been fairly stable, short stints on your resume will require careful and reasonable explanation.

So what's a good average? Says Patti Quiring, CPC, Recruiter/President, Quiring Associates, Inc., "A balance is likely a good course to follow. Anything done to excess is traditionally not good. Therefore, stability mixed with variety is the best choice here. My recommendation is for both applicants and employers to attempt to make a three to five year commitment to one another to allow both parties the opportunity to achieve at high levels and to maximize their relationship with one another."

McGill offers, "I think that there's a minimum time that one needs to stay in a job, probably around 2 years. But there needs to be a balance." Marino relates, "Average workers nowadays change jobs every five years, and in today's labor market, it's not unusual to make a switch after a year or two."

From conversations over the years with HR professionals, recruiters, and hiring managers, the general consensus is that, even if the job is a real stinker, you should try to keep at it for at least 6 months to a year. Generally, it takes at least 2 to 3 years in a job, that may begin great, before you realize your opportunities aren't really there and you need to make another move. Ideally, you try to aim for at least a 3 to 5 year tenure. But, as we've seen, there are lots of reasonable exceptions.

The primary key to avoid being marked as a job-hopper is to have very good, clearly explainable reasons for each job move, regardless of duration. If you were in a bad situation, be able to show that you tried to take steps to make it better. If you fell victim to Godzilla's corporate cousin, Reorgzilla, tell about it. If you needed to move closer to ailing family members, speak up. If the job took a turn into a dead end, say so. Says McGill, "If you have a specific career goal and the opportunities you need were not available to you where you were or are, then it's reasonable to say, 'I changed or am changing jobs because I was unable to get this specific experience, but your company can help me.'" Just as you need to make a difference in every job, every job needs to offer a chance to learn and grow.

However, if the reason you jumped ship from the last 3 or 4 jobs, each of which you held for 18 months or less, was to gain a few more vacation days and a couple of thousand more in salary -- you may be in trouble! Laments Quiring, "All too often, one side or the other jump ship leaving a broken connection behind."

What about the future?

Okay, so, is this something we welcome or just prepare for? Handy already told us we need to be in charge of our own destinies. And that's not all he says! "Shaping work to suit our lives means, first of all, taking more of the job outside the organization, so that the job is more in our control….To re-invent work in its fullest sense, we need another word. Portfolio might be that word….A portfolio is a collection of different items, but a collection which has a theme to it."

"In the past," Handy explains, "for most of us, our work portfolio has had only one item in it…This was, when you think about it, a risky strategy. Few would these days put all of their money into one asset, yet that is what a lot of us have been doing with our lives. That one asset, that one job, has had to work overtime for we have looked to it for so many things at once -- for interest or satisfaction in the work itself…"

What does this mean? In the future, our careers may be less and less tied to a specific company, but rather we may each become our own companies, providing a portfolio of services to others. As D'Amico and Judy tell us, "…companies must constantly innovate if they are to survive in an increasingly competitive marketplace." So do we, to remain marketable, need to constantly innovate and expand our portfolios through creative and unique methods.

We not only need to prepare ourselves for it, but we also need to welcome change. The reality is that tenure and longevity in the sense of staying in one place for 10 years or a lifetime will no longer exist. In fact, that much longevity can be a real negative. Explains Chase, "Some HR professionals and upper management view someone who has been at a company for 15 or 20 years or more as someone who cannot change as the world changes. They are viewed as untrainable, not flexible, unable to accept change in the fast growth of most companies. For our company…we change so quickly in our industry that someone who is unable to flex when needed, no matter how long they have been with a company, many not necessarily be a good hire or investment. We want someone who can come in and learn, grow, and contribute to the company. But we are realistic enough to know that they won't stay 10 years."

What about taking a closer look at corporate resumes? With the trend moving rapidly to frequent job and company changes as the norm, companies who are comprised of a high percentage of employees with 10-plus year tenures, particularly at senior levels, may be in trouble given the dynamics of the overall marketplace! Are they stable, or actually stagnant?

As professional communicators, it is critically incumbent upon us to not only talk, write, and communicate about change, but we must embrace and welcome change ourselves. It's here, it's now, it's our future. Hang on and enjoy the ride!

   

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

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