Tech employees jumping jobs faster

Employee turnover in the high-tech industry is reaching the point where the average employee leaves in just over a year, and many who stay get antsy to quit after a year and a half.

5 min read
Employee turnover in the high-tech industry has reached the point where the average employee leaves in just over a year, and many who stay get antsy to quit after a year and a half.

According to Chicago headhunting firm Roy Talman & Associates, the average technology professional stays on the job roughly 13 months.

Meanwhile, employment experts say there's something of a more recent second wave of departures at 18 months, when many employees who are left behind feel compelled to leave or risk acquiring a reputation as "dead wood" or "lifers"--people who hang around because they are too lazy or not talented enough to receive jobs offers or cold calls from desperate headhunters.

Human resource experts agree that employees in the technology industry get itchy for a new job when they hit the 18-month mark with their current employer. Although many recruiters prize prospective employees who have stayed at the same job for several years--on the assumption that they will be loyal to their new employer as well--tech workers increasingly feel the need to quit regularly.

Allan Hoffman, the technology jobs expert at career portal Monster.com, says 18 months has emerged as a clear window of opportunity for serial quitters. Hoffman, who monitors job placement message boards, says employees undergo a subtle psychological shift in their relationship with their employer after spending a year and a half at the same company.

"At 18 months, employees certainly don't think they have any more obligation to stay," Hoffman said. "The way the market is now, people arrive at a job and start thinking about where to go next. I'm not saying everyone does that, but there's a mentality that you have to keep moving."

While the 18-month-and-out attitude comes as no surprise to contractors hired to build a Web site or write a single software program, the attitude may be spreading to rank-and-file workers and the broader work force in tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, Boston, suburban Washington and other East Coast centers.

"Everyone around you is quitting, getting these great offers," said an analyst who specializes in technology firms for an East Coast company. "You start thinking that the only way to move up is to move out, even if you haven't really been there for a long time, and you're not really bored or unhappy. It's insane."

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High turnover is particularly popular with young employees, many who believe that staying more than a year or two is a career faux pas. Instead of working up the corporate ladder at the same company, new college graduates prefer to build up their résumés with multiple employers and a variety of positions.

According to a January report by JobTrak.com, an online job listing service, 78 percent of students and alumni say they plan to stay with their first employers for no longer than three years.

"A generation ago, a lot of these new grads were committed to these corporations," said Ken Ramberg, co-founder of Los Angeles-based JobTrak. "When they saw their parents getting laid off, they realized that their corporations weren't committed to their parents. They're free agents based on the salary, based on the culture of the company, and they're in a fortunate position. It's a unique time in history. The demand for high tech is through the roof."

New grads and other workers may also have a financial incentive to change jobs frequently.

Gordon Miller, author of "Quit Your Job Often and Get Big Raises!" said he increased his salary by $100,000 in five years by switching jobs nearly once per year. Gordon, whose book has received several five-star rankings from job hoppers on Amazon.com, theorizes that workers make more money and get more job offers by jumping to another company than by waiting for incremental raises and interoffice promotions at their current employer.

Why do tech workers get antsy after a year and a half? The answer lies partly in the nature of tech work itself.

Many computer programmers and Web developers feel they have finished their work when their software or Web site is functioning smoothly. If they cannot find another interesting position internally, or if they want to continue developing software or building Web sites from scratch, they have no choice but to look elsewhere.

Forget about the stereotypical IBM drone who toiled for three decades in the same office until retirement. Today's high-tech worker is more like John Boal, a 35-year-old software developer who has not spent more than 18 months in the same office since 1996.

"I'm like a contractor who builds houses," said Boal, who now works for Seattle-based consulting firm Immersant and is no longer actively job-hunting. "You don't build one house in 20 years. You keep going from house to house. Instead of houses, I build Web sites and applications," he said.

Others blame the higher turnover on the faster pace of the new economy, where executives boast about working on "Internet time."

A decade ago, a marketing manager may have spent several years launching and coddling a single product or product line. By contrast, a marketing manager at a tech company with 100 percent annual growth rates may work on numerous generations of software and deal with several different business models in 18 months--while the company has gone from pre-IPO start-up to a publicly traded corporation.

That gives people broader management experience in a compressed time and a packed résumé that may make the employee even more attractive to another firm.

Many tech workers insist their rush out the door does not imply capriciousness or lack of loyalty. Rather, it mirrors the changes that are rifling through senior management and rocking the very business structure of the companies where they work.

Silicon Valley systems administrator Oscar Cwajbaum says he prefers to stay with a single employer for at least six months, but sometimes he cannot keep that bargain.

Cwajbaum left one previous employer, Tandem, when Compaq bought it. He then left ClariNet when it started having cash-flow problems and stopped running nonessential operations. He left Egreetings when the Cupertino, Calif., resident was transferred to a San Francisco office and had to commute three hours a day.

"I leave a job when it's no longer interesting," Cwajbaum said, noting that he is happy as a contractor at his current employer, Healtheon/WebMD. "This usually happens after a major change at the company or my job. I stay while I find the work enjoyable, engaging and interesting, and I leave when I don't."

While the 18-month-and-out rule is the bane of corporate recruiters and human resources managers, there is a bright side, said Debra Thobe, a technology compensation consultant in Carrollton, Texas.

"Some people might love the pace of a start-up, but they don't like working there when the company gets older and has more bureaucracy," Thobe said. "Others like the larger companies but don't want the burn and churn (start-up) lifestyle. What can be perceived as job skipping is really aligning your career with the portion of the job in which you excel."