To save your job, hop around?

How's this for a recipe for job security: Don't stay too long with any one employer. Brian Livingston untangles the contradiction -- and if you're a Web worker, this is all about you!

3 min read
So much for sticking with one company for the rest of your career.

If you work for an Internet-based business, your best career move may paradoxically be to job hop--and job hop a lot.

Or so a new study suggests. The "Net Working" study, which is being released today by the Economic Policy Institute, a research center in Washington, D.C., finds that new-media workers who create Internet content get much better salary increases by moving rapidly from job to job than by staying with the same company.

The report's four co-authors, who are associated with Cornell University, polled 335 workers in New York City's Silicon Alley, a concentrated area of Internet-related companies. The study, which defined new-media workers as people who create "text, sound and images" for Internet distribution (including streaming media and interactive CD-ROMs), drew three main conclusions:

 Velocity: New-media workers have a high level of "velocity," or turnover, even by the relatively high levels typical of U.S. workers. Independent contractors, comprising one-third of the workers in the study, reported having six different employers in the past year. But even full-time, permanent workers reported having two different employers within the past 12 months (on average), suggesting they'd worked less than one year at their present company.

 Self-learning: When asked about the most important ways they gained new-media skills that were attractive to employers, 87 percent of the respondents said self-teaching. This ranked far above industry workshops and college coursework (about 17 percent each). As a result, the Internet workers reported spending 15 hours of paid time and 13.5 hours of unpaid time per week developing new skills. Only about two hours of that time involved formal training programs. Respondents reported an average of 53 work hours a week.

 Ill-defined skill sets: There are few established standards or certification programs for new-media skills, the study says. Perhaps as a result, only 56 percent of respondents felt satisfied that their current job was secure, and employers reported difficulty evaluating the skills of job applicants.

The combination of these factors results in little permanence for Internet workers. The study found that only 16 percent of those surveyed would reject an offer from a different employer if it came with higher pay.

The study quotes one unnamed recruiter saying: "New-media people almost never move up within a company; they move up by moving on. In most industries, the path would likely lead to a similar role with a competitor. In new media, that's not the case."

The project-oriented nature of Internet work makes career success more dependent on personal connections than impressive credentials.

Who you know, not what you know?
An anonymous vice president for Sun Microsystems, quoted in the study, says: "Two percent of the jobs we fill are filled from resumes. Most of the jobs in our company are filled by referrals from other employees."

In new media, who you know matters almost as much as what you know, the study concludes. Despite the "anywhere and everywhere" hype about the Internet, the study's co-authors point out that new-media jobs concentrate in "valleys and alleys" where strong personal networks can be built.

People in New York's new-media epicenter confirm some of the study's conclusions but question others.

"Few if any training companies offer a certification or rating program in (new-media) application programs," says Alan Brody, producer of the iBreakfast Club, a monthly Silicon Alley event.

"But that's hardly the fault of the new-media companies."

Chris Geiser, senior technologist of The Garrigan Lyman Group, a branding and creative-services company with 50 permanent employees in New York, San Francisco and Seattle, says, "We're atypical because we haven't had any turnover." He added that contractors come and go at a rapid pace, "anywhere from two weeks to two months, dependent on the project."

Ironically, in cyberspace you may have the greatest job security by not staying too long with any one employer.

Consumer advocate Brian Livingston appears at CNET News.com every Friday. Do you know of a problem affecting consumers? Send info to tips@BrianLivingston.com. He'll send you a book of high-tech secrets free if you're the first to submit a tip he prints.