The Great Resignation: Why millions of workers are leaving their jobs and what to consider before quitting

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Javier Mayer was just two days in at his new job when he started hunting for different positions. He was at the firm for six weeks by the time he quit.

The 37-year-old, Los Angeles-based recruiter said he found himself at a company back in August that didn’t feel like the right culture fit. Managers interrupted employees during meetings. Colleagues discussed sensitive personal matters. He felt even more blindsided during his first week when his hiring manager left the company, a casualty to what some economists are describing as the hottest job market in decades — for those who can get in on the action, at least.

Feeling a general sense of dread every morning about going into the office, Mayer decided to chase a more desirable position, unafraid that it meant job hopping across three different companies in a two-month span.

“Life is definitely short, and the pandemic showed us that it can stop in an instant,” Mayer says. “We spend most of our waking hours at work. I wanted to work somewhere where I was happy and enjoying what I was actually doing.”

A record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September

Workers have long been warned that frequent job hopping is taboo, with firms seemingly hesitant to invest in training applicants who appear quick to ditch a job. Now, however, desperate employers have no choice but to abandon any disapproval they may have in today’s pandemic-ravaged labor market, as a near record number of jobs wait to be filled in a workforce that’s still short of 3 million people, close to half of them (1.4 million) prime-age workers between 24 and 55.

That’s all happening as the share of workers who voluntarily quit their positions — long seen as a sign of economic confidence — hit a record high of 3 percent in September, amounting to nearly 4.4 million, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Per every 73 unemployed Americans, employers have 100 job openings, a ratio that’s even lower than pre-pandemic levels. Employers’ hiring is still outpacing the number of workers who are quitting, though that margin is the smallest since February 2010. Job openings, however, declined for the second straight month in September, though workers are continuing to quit at historic rates.

Experts say the environment is giving workers more leverage to leave their current positions, though turnover data doesn’t specifically indicate why people are leaving, where they’re ending up, or how long they’d been at their employer.

“They are job switching, even though we can’t know that for sure,” says Nick Bunker, economic research director for North America at the Indeed Hiring Lab. “Because of the historically high level of job openings, because of the really high demand for workers right now, we are in a position where the market is pretty tight for new hires. Employers are having to compete to get folks in the door.”

Half of workers plan to hunt for a new job over the next year

The game of hiring musical chairs won’t be stopping soon, a Bankrate survey from August indicates. The majority of the workforce (55 percent) plans to look for a new job over the next 12 months. Even 28 percent of those who aren’t currently on the job hunt plan to start their search at some point in the next year, the survey found. One in 10 respondents said they were jobless and not looking for a new job.

Experts say a labor shortage of some kind was expected given how quickly employers have tried to ramp up production after lockdowns, but the job switching is exacerbating those supply shocks — some of them no doubt contributing to the bottlenecks that pushed up consumer prices 6.2 percent from a year ago, the fastest pace since December 1990.

“There are challenges related to what would be typical under normal circumstances,” says Mark Hamrick, Bankrate senior economic analyst and Washington bureau chief. “And then there are the new dynamics related to the reordering of priorities on the part of many workers and families. Many Americans have taken the opportunity to re-evaluate what they want out of their career and their lives overall. For some, that’s prompted a decision to change careers, employers, or both.”

While record number of Americans job hop, others face barriers to employment

What’s perplexing is the backdrop in which that job switching is occurring: a labor market that is, by most measures, still wounded. Nearly 5 million fewer people are employed today compared with before the pandemic and the unemployed are spending close to seven months hunting for a job, according to the Labor Department. Almost a third of the unemployed (2.3 million people) have been out of work for more than six months. Those figures imply that the tight labor market may be favoring those who are already in a job, and many jobless Americans may still be hitting roadblocks in their hiring search.

Other data suggests that unemployed workers might feel more flexibility to keep hunting for a position that appeals to them, thanks to direct cash assistance from Congress that’s propped up personal savings rates and the record demand for work.

October data from Indeed shows that COVID fears, having an employed spouse and caretaking responsibilities were the top reasons why unemployed workers weren’t searching more urgently. Part of the caregiving picture, the child day care industry is still missing about 10 percent of its pre-pandemic payrolls.

“Labor supply hasn’t shifted as quickly as demand has,” Bunker says. “Job seekers have been more patient returning to work than they have in the past, but employers want to get going.”

American workers’ priorities are shifting — but can employers give them what they want?

Bankrate’s August survey showed that Americans are thinking differently about what they want out of work — and where they want to be employed. In the wake of the pandemic, employees are prioritizing higher pay just as much, if not higher, than flexible work hours or the ability to work from home.

That was even more true for the lowest-wage workers (those earning under $30,000 a year), who were nearly 1.8 times as likely to prefer a pay boost than remote work (48 percent versus 27 percent, respectively).

“This likely means some workers believe that they weren’t being paid enough for demanding jobs, such as in the bar and restaurant industry amid shift work and low pay all the while in public-facing positions,” Hamrick says.

Major employers in those industries have been quick to raise wages to lure and retain workers, with McDonald’s and Chipotle boosting hourly pay to $15. Macy’s is also raising its minimum wage to $15 per hour and offering workers an extra paid holiday and tuition assistance.

Americans could seek further pay gains to compensate for their lost purchasing power as prices climb on everything from furniture, apparel and groceries to gasoline and housing. Yet, even with employers lifting wages, inflation-adjusted earnings haven’t kept up with the pace.

Others, like Mayer, are saying a better work culture (24 percent) is important to them when they think of their careers beyond the outbreak, with his cohort of older millennials between the ages of 32 and 40 listing it more than any other generation as an important aspect of their employment.

Pandemic-ravaged sectors see highest quits rates, but other industries are feeling a spillover effect

The ultimate question is how long the job switching will last, and whether employers will be forced to give in to employees’ demands. The labor shortage could subside once pandemic-related factors recede, and eventually, Americans’ savings will also be depleted.

Jobseekers with long-term gaps on their resumes are still at risk of being discriminated against in the hiring process, with a Harvard Business School study from September finding that nearly 48 percent of employers use hiring software tools to exclude middle-skill candidates with employment gaps of more than six months from the candidate pool. Meanwhile, some companies might be hesitant to boost wages, hoping they can get by on cheaper labor costs as long as they can.

Quits are up across the board, but workers in the industries most fragile to the pandemic have dominated the trend, many of them lower-wage earners with thin profit margins and the inability to work remotely to begin with. Bunker says it means the story is more about strong demand for labor right now, rather than a total rethink among higher-income workers that’s leading them to drop out.

Workers in leisure and hospitality — which includes food services, as well as arts and entertainment — are quitting their jobs at the fastest rates, while those industries also have the highest percentage of job openings. In the trade, transportation and utilities sector, 8.4 percent of jobs are empty, the third-highest of any sector, and 1.4 times as many people are quitting than usual.

“There is more frequent churn in already high-churn industries,” Bunker says. “The question is less, ‘Are the skills there?’ and more, ‘Is the desire to work in those fields there?’ And that is potentially the slowest-moving part of the labor supply.”

Yet, workers outside of those industries are even jumping on the bandwagon, and Mayer is illustrative of the phenomenon himself. Demand for workers in his industry of human resources is up 105.8 percent from February 2020 and nearly 13 percent from a month ago, Indeed reports, as desperate employers hope to hire people who can help them fill their payrolls.

Like all major economic events, it means the resignations will have a ripple effect, and only time will tell how the major crosscurrents change the labor market.

“I knew I was unhappy there, and it wasn’t the right fit for me, and I knew also that this time right now was probably the best time to leave a job and find something new,” Mayer says. “If I wanted to make a move, it had to be now.”

Looking to quit? Consider these 7 items first

1. Make sure you have the savings funds, especially if you quit without taking a new job

If you’re hoping to make a great resignation for yourself, you should above all else make sure you have sufficient emergency savings. Year after year, Bankrate’s nationwide surveys have shown that Americans’ biggest financial regrets are not stashing enough cash away in a rainy day fund.

Building an emergency fund is especially important if you’re planning to leave your current position before you find a new job.

“The old school mentality is that it’s better to have a new job before you leave your old job, and there is some truth to that, but I also totally understand if you need to totally reset,” says Vanessa King, senior vice president of financial planning at Ancora. “The pandemic changed all of our lives drastically and quickly. When you are forced to reevaluate and slow down, priorities become clearer.”

But an ample rainy day fund is good in all circumstances, even if you leave a job with another lined up.

“This is just so that income isn’t interrupted unless one has sufficient financial resources to cover a prolonged period of unemployment,” Hamrick says. “It can be the case that the next job doesn’t work out or isn’t as good a fit as hoped, prompting an unforeseen early exit.”

2. Maintain a good relationship with your former employer

If you do decide to quit, experts say to maintain strong relationships with your managers and end your time on a good note. That means giving ample notice about your resignation. The ultimate goal is being able to ensure you can use your managers as references on your behalf while you’re job searching. Keeping your network intact throughout your career is also a plus, considering many individuals find positions through word of mouth.

3. If it’s time to quit, make sure you have a plan for health care

If you’re going to quit your job before you have another lined up, you shouldn’t neglect your health care plans. If you’re married, perhaps you can hop on your spouse’s plan while you seek new employment. Federal COBRA health benefits are also available to you for up to 18 months, but you’ll still be paying out of pocket — and those amounts can be rather pricey. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that the average premium on an employer-sponsored plan in 2020 was $7,470 for single adults and $21,342 for families.

4. Don’t forget about leaving other benefits on the table

Regardless of what you’re looking for in your employment beyond the pandemic, Americans shouldn’t forget about the other benefits that might have at their current positions that they’d be leaving behind when they take a new job. That could be a retirement match program or child care subsidies. And if you do transfer jobs, don’t forget to transfer your funds from your 401(k) or other retirement planning vehicle.

5. Apply for new jobs early and often

New positions open up every day, and you’ll be rewarded if you’re persistent in your jobs search.

6. Seek out new training and skills if you want to leave your industry

If you’re working in an industry that no longer fills your cup or doesn’t meet your workplace priorities, consider going back to school or finding new training that might be able to help you transfer to your desired field. Some employers might even be able to help subsidize that training — or provide it themselves — in a ploy to recruit more talent.

7. Use the bargaining power to your advantage

Experts say jobseekers have more power than they might expect right now, meaning you shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to find a job that works better for you if you’re indeed feeling unhappy or burnt out. That also includes asking for a pay raise when you’re negotiating for an offer or bargaining for a more flexible work option, depending on what’s important to you.

“Say, ‘I’m interested in this job, but I see quite a number of job openings these days. What do you have to offer?’” Bunker says. “If you’re looking for a job in a field or industry that’s trying to bounce back from the pandemic, there might be lots of options for you, and you can use those options to find a better fit.”

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Written by
Sarah Foster
U.S. economy reporter
Sarah Foster covers the Federal Reserve, the U.S. economy and economic policy. She previously worked for Bloomberg News, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily Herald.
Edited by
Senior wealth editor