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Peering into the soul of the tech worker

Think the economic downturn is making tech employees more loyal and less individualistic? Towers Perrin global talent management principal Chris Michalak offers a perspective.

4 min read
The economic downturn and massive layoffs in the technology sector have made employees more loyal and less individualistic than they were during the 1990s job boom, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong.

According to the Towers Perrin Talent Report, a new study of the job market by the Stamford, Conn.-based human resource strategy consulting firm, employees are still on the prowl for new jobs.

Slightly more than half of 6,000 American and Canadian workers surveyed said they were "in the job market," and 12 percent were active hunters. The remaining 44 percent called themselves "job scanners"--people who would happily consider any new offer.

Job insecurity, frustration and defections were especially high in the technology sector, where employees said they were sick of dealing with incompetent coworkers. According to the survey, the slowing economy has actually encouraged tech workers to look for other jobs; for the most part, they're not hunkering down at their current job simply for stability's sake.

Chris Michalak, who is responsible for Towers Perrin's global talent management initiative, led the first annual study and explained the surprising results to CNET News.com reporter Rachel Konrad.

Q: Tech workers have historically been more active job hunters than workers in other industries, and the average tech worker found a new job every year during the late 1990s. Has the downturn changed that?
A: No. Tech workers are still more likely to be looking for other jobs than other workers, according to our study--that was one of the biggest surprises. Think about it in the context of the economic situation: Tech workers are twice as likely to experience layoffs...so it makes sense that they're also twice as likely to feel insecure in their job. The very nature of layoffs seems to be creating an "I need to be looking" attitude.

Then combine what's going on in the economy with what has been true for years in the tech industry: The best ways to look for jobs are Web searches, and that appeals to tech-enabled people. In the high-tech industry, the concept of challenging or sexy work is really important. There are more free agents and fast trackers in high-tech than in other industries. It's just a part of the culture to have your eyes open.

Could a sustained downturn change the industry's job-hopping culture?
It could change the situation. But if I think back to early 90s, during the previous slowdown, people were moving into independent consulting. They were heading outside of Corporate America, where people could set their own pace and not have to worry about getting laid off. So another downturn might actually fuel this free agent trend even more.

There's certainly the possibility that people will hunker down and realize there aren't many opportunities out there. But my take is that a really high-performing employee always has the power and the ability to find another job.

Why are techies leaving their jobs so often? Is it for more pay, better career opportunities or some other motivator?
I don't think it's about salary. In our data, they're saying they feel more positive about pay than the average worker--significantly more positive...I think they're moving for greater career opportunities.

They feel substantially less enthusiastic about their career opportunities than most employees. Highly engaged high-tech workers say they're substantially less enthusiastic about whether their company can identify underperforming employees. They're moving for reasons relating to work environment.

Are you saying that tech workers leave their jobs because they think their coworkers aren't as smart or productive as they are?
People are still very confident about finding another job...The issue is whether they can find a better job. Poor performers are a big issue. It can be a real de-motivator for some people...and it was particularly important for high-tech workers--especially with highly engaged high-tech employees.

They're also saying they need more career opportunities to develop their own skills. They're basically saying, "I've got poor performers I'm working next to, and my company isn't fully tapping my skills and abilities." They're saying, "There are all these other employees around me doing shoddy work, and I want a shot at it because I can do it better."

Does that mean that employers must fire bad workers in order to keep good ones?
It is more complicated than that, but that's definitely a factor. The way you get the best workers to stay is by offering a more compelling overall deal. You have to look at things related to work environment, learning and development. After you're sure they have the right pay, you should focus on career opportunities and address poor performance of other people on the team.

The idea that a manager can completely root out incompetence or laziness strikes me as na?ve--and seems arrogant on the part of the workers who think so highly of themselves. What's at the heart of this issue?
In the high-tech industry, the concept of challenging or sexy work is really important. It's similar in that way to consulting. People really want to have an opportunity to work on the latest technology, the most important project. To some extent, there's some of this attitude of, "I want the best possible opportunity to build my resume and grow and advance, and if other people are getting those opportunities and they're less talented, it frustrates me." There may be an element of arrogance, but it may be just competitiveness.

Tech workers I've talked to say they can find any old job to pay the rent, but they're worried that they won't be able to leap from their current job to a substantially better job because of the slowing economy. Are they justified in their concerns?
That's pretty accurate. People are still very confident about finding another job. On average, 68 percent of workers said they could find another job, but only 27 percent said they could find a better job. The issue is whether they can find a better job.