High Unemployment Results in a “Buyer’s Market”

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

With the unemployment rate remaining high, call centers find themselves in a “buyer’s market” when it comes to hiring agents and support staff. There are plenty of people looking for work, which results in more applicants to pick from for each opening. High unemployment also serves to limit the mobility options of those currently employed, effectively lowering employee turnover. With more applicants to choose from and fewer staff leaving voluntarily, the results should be a more stable workforce. Unfortunately, this may not actually be the case.

Consider the stories of these five folks from 2010. Although their names have been changed and some details obscured, these are the true plights of real people:

Chuck worked in a small satellite office of a larger organization. The staff in his office were close and worked together well. They helped each other complete their work, regardless of job description and title. Sadly, this idyllic existence abruptly ended when corporate closed Chuck’s office in a cost-saving move. But Chuck was told that he could work from home. Then Chuck got a new boss, who rescinded that promise. He now commutes 120 miles to work each day. The corporate office is nothing like his old office. Teamwork has been replaced by finger-pointing and blindly following job descriptions; no one cares about the clients – or about each other. One by one, Chuck’s coworkers have quit or are being let go. He fears he is next and is frantically looking for work closer to home – even if it means cut in pay.

Carly is a college graduate whose chosen profession currently has a 40 percent unemployment rate. Unable to find work, she went to grad school. Her summer employer offered her a full-time position when she graduated but has been slow in providing details. Unfortunately, this job is not in her field, nor does it interest her. However, out of necessity, she will persist in this job – for now – but doesn’t plan to remain there any longer then necessary.

Danielle also recently graduated from college. Her college internship continued after graduation, with the promise of a promotion when the economy turned around. She is now doing the work she trained for – but without the title, recognition, or pay. This has been going on for a year. Although she is now working full-time, it is at her internship rate, which is about 40 percent of what she should make. She has polished her resume and is looking for better paying alternatives.

Karl has a full-time job in his chosen profession. At first, he liked his company and earned stellar reviews. However, in his latest review, he scored the lowest in each category. Last year, after their busy season, a coworker was abruptly fired. Karl fears that this year he will get the axe as soon as the seasonal peak is over. He is salaried and was initially told to expect working an additional twenty-five hours a week during the busy season. However, his boss recently tacked on ten more. He desperately wants to find a new job but has no time to pursue it. As soon as things slow down, he will begin looking in earnest.

Larry greatly enjoyed working in his chosen career, finding it rewarding and fulfilling. However, after a planned move out-of-state, he was unable to find work at his level of experience and education. He eventually acquiesced to a much lower position at less than half the pay. The company promotes from within, so he hoped that he would eventually move into a position matching his skills and have his compensation level restored. Unfortunately, because he was performing a low-level position, he was looked down upon and demeaned by those who should have been his peers. The circumstances became so dreadful that he left that company, taking a further pay cut in the hopes of finding a nicer work environment. Once again, he has the expectation of promotion and, although feedback has been favorable, there are no openings, so he could find himself repeating the process.

These people share two common characteristics. First, they do not like their jobs. Second, each one desperately wants a different position and is striving to make it happen. Since they have stellar qualifications and employable skills, their job expectations are not unreasonable. When the economy turns around, they are sure to find better work.

From this, we can extrapolate that:

  • Many employees are unhappy but endure difficult work situations – for now.
  • Many people are underemployed.
  • Some people are working outside their fields of expertise. For many, this is not a choice but a short-term necessity.
  • When an entry-level employee sticks around after graduation, it may not mean that they like the company, but that there aren’t currently other options.

What does this mean?

  • When the economy turns around, many employees will seek different work. Reportedly, one third of the workforce is anxiously waiting to change jobs.
  • The most employable people – who are likely also the most valued workers – will be the first to switch; those who lack skills or drive will stay.
  • There is pent-up worker frustration, which employers will be confronted with when alternative employment options emerge.

What can employers do?

  • Begin treating employees as if unemployment is low, and it’s a “seller’s market.”  Showing more respect for employees now – when you don’t have to – will keep them working for you later – when they don’t have to.
  • Recognize that with downsizing, layoffs, hiring freezes, and consolidations, employees have been stretched and pushed to a breaking point. Look for ways to relieve stress and reduce pressure now.
  • Talk and listen to employees. Perhaps there is a slight that can be amended, an injustice that can be corrected, and an oversight that can be righted.

You can take steps now to keep the employees you have, or you can wait for economic recovery and then find their replacements.

Postscript: Though the unemployment rate is still high, Danielle and Karl have both found new jobs. One took a pay cut, but the other other garnered a nice boost. Both have substantially better work environments, work fewer hours, enjoy their coworkers more, and experience less stress; they are happily employed.

Carly and Larry are still in their dead-end jobs, but each has plans in place to change that. One will move to a new city where fill-in work is readily available, earning more in the process; the other will freelance while networking to find a permanent position.

Chuck remains in his position. Although things are now tolerable, he is still anxious to leave. He knows he will never be as appreciated or esteemed as he once was; his new boss remains cold, distant, and unwilling to let him telecommute.  He knows it is only a matter of time.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From the February/March 2011 issue of AnswerStat magazine]