On the Clock

The Golden Era of Work

Data and experts say anyone stuck in a career funk now has the best chance to upgrade in a generation. First in a series.

For the last few years, Samantha saw no way out. She had worked in sales and marketing for a media company and realized the company’s goals didn’t align with her passion for empowering girls. And there didn’t seem to be a tangible path for her to take on a more senior position. She often thought of switching roles, but the recession and tough job market—and her decent healthcare coverage—kept her at the same place.

But look at her today and you’ll find a whole new person. Her role? A vice president at an international nonprofit that helps girls get access to education. “She was able to highlight her experience managing marketing campaigns and building relationships with clients to show her value,” says Caitlin Magidson, the counselor and career coach in Bethesda, Maryland, who helped Samantha make the career jump up the ladder.

We’ve all been there, hopelessly stuck in a job or career with few prospects of advancement or pay raises. Experts say millions have faced this, of course, but a confluence of events had made recent decades particularly tough. The booming market crashed, global competition became real, and companies held back capital spending at a record pace, in effect freezing much of the job market. For more than a decade, as even successful graduates wound up working at Starbucks, most people with a job felt their prospects for the kind of advancement their parents enjoyed were slim.

Today’s robust job market means there isn’t even one person for every job opening.

But today’s numbers tell a whole new story—one that describes a job market as robust as ever and unemployment at record lows. During the height of the recession, for every job opening there were 6.6 unemployed persons, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now that ratio is 0.9, meaning there isn’t even one person for every job opening. What’s more, the “quit rate”—or the percentage of workers who voluntarily quit jobs instead of being fired or laid off—was 2.4% in May, the highest it’s been in 17 years. If a person quits a job, they’re usually pretty confident that they’ll find another one or may already have one lined up—a sign of just how hot the labor market really is.

“Now is a great time to make a pivot,” Magidson says. “Your skills are so valuable because there are more jobs open than people to fill them.”

But that’s only the beginning of what’s going on. For the first time in nearly seven years, companies are upping capital spending, while witnessing a tech revolution that requires new skills sets from workers at all levels. Sensing an urgent need for new breeds of workers, they spent nearly $91 billion on training expenditures last year alone.

All of which means, in the eyes of career pros, the current work environment is a rare opportunity for throngs of workers to shift gears, so long as they are open to a new fast-paced world requiring agility. “If you can talk about how your skills translate over to another industry, you can easily rebrand yourself,” Magidson says.

Take Nicole Landau. For years, she worked as an internal auditor and accountant in Denver for large companies. After feeling burnout creeping in, she decided to sign up for an online training program tailored to help accountants grow their businesses. With some new training, she left a job at her big firm and set up her own accounting outfit. “I’m able to be a go-to expert and work remotely with clients across the entire US,” Nicole says.

Of course, most experts caution against job shifting without a long-term plan in mind. And there are risks in changing or even upgrading careers; that new hot start-up that drew you away from your stodgy but safe job could go bust. “Sometimes we have our own blind spots,” says Katy Caselli, an organizational psychologist and founder of the corporate-training firm Building Giants in North Carolina. “It’s important to ask for feedback, talk to other people, and network to get advice.”

And demographics suggest that this unusual era may sustain itself for a while. Baby boomers are working longer—Americans over the age of 65 are employed at the highest rates in 55 years—but millennials have now become the largest generation in the US labor force, according to the Pew Research Center. What that means, in practice, is that while the boomer workforce is holding on, it’s shrinking at a slower pace than previous older generations in the labor market. At the same time, millennial labor numbers continue to increase, in part because of immigration, making opportunities for people to get creative with their careers boundless, whether through succession planning, promotions, or veering off to start their own business.

What’s more, shifting careers may be the best if not only way to significantly boost income. To the surprise of many, companies are posting average raises below 3% even in this tight job market. “Money isn’t everything, but it sets a bar,” says Alexander Lowry, a former JPMorgan executive and the executive director of the master of science in financial analysis program at Gordon College in Massachusetts. “People get paid best when they leave the company.”

Click here for part two. 

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