Your 'loyal' employees? Always looking for the next job.

Bernardo Bieler, a 37-year-old civil engineer, worked on the Palmetto Expressway near Miami back in 2010. He's worked for two other firms since then. "I never planned to be for a short period of time in a particular company," he says.

Bernardo Bieler and his wife, Noemi, who is also a civil engineer and works from home, with their new baby, at home in the City of Doral, Miami-Dade County.

The prospect of getting a ‘career job’ has dwindled for many American workers over the past several decades.

In particular, men over the age of 25 have seen their job tenure decline: from a median of nearly six years at a single job in 1983, to 5.5 years in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Median job tenure bottomed out around 2000, and has increased somewhat since the Great Recession. Workers are trying to hold on to jobs longer now, in response to persistently high unemployment -- not to mention the difficulty of getting a new job after voluntarily separating from one's current employer.

The decrease in job tenure is most notable among older male workers, according to a report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Back in 1983, more than 60 percent of men in their mid-50s had been with the same employer for ten years or more. By 2010, just over 50 percent had. For men in their mid-40s, the percentage with ten years or more in the same organization had fallen from 58 percent to 44 percent.

Many of today’s new workers face extremely short job tenure, in temp work, contract work, and project work. Meanwhile, young professionals are using LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media to network and hunt for new job opportunities online, 24/7. They do this from their current jobs, even if they like the job, consider it a career-builder, and plan to stay for a while. They make and maintain professional connections with fellow bankers, or software engineers—or hiring managers—inside the organizations of customers and competitors. These job-holding job-seekers are always on the hunt for the next better thing.

"If you’re under the age of thirty, you’re likely to hold upwards of 15 to 20 jobs throughout your career," says Dan Finnigan, CEO of the employment recruiting site Jobvite, and former general manager of Yahoo! Hotjobs. “If you do the math—that means you’re going to be changing jobs about every three to four years.”

Finnigan says recent recessions have led to massive layoffs, followed by weak job recoveries. So employment—even for well-educated and -trained professionals—is never a sure thing.

"Employees must be prepared in case anything happens," says Finnigan. "So job-seekers are always shopping for the next job. They don’t believe any one company’s going to provide them a career."

If Dan Finnigan has the view of these labor-market trends from up on the overpass, Bernardo Bieler sees them from the ground up.

He’s 37, a civil engineer, originally from Venezuela. His field of expertise is transportation and water resources, and he showed us one slice of infrastructure he worked on a few years ago—the Palmetto Expressway expansion near Miami. Bieler designed drainage ponds for rainwater.

“I performed a lot of modeling using different storms—a storm that happens every five, ten, twenty-five, fifty, one hundred years,” Bieler explains, surveying the completed project, a ten-minute drive from his house in Miami-Dade County. "I have driven here on a rainy day, and I see it working."

Bieler’s proud of the drainage pond, proud of the work his technical team did on the expressway expansion.

But when we sit down back at his home, he tells us that he didn’t stick with that company for very long.

"Since 2008, I have worked in three different companies," says Bieler. "Honestly, I never planned to be in a particular company for a short period of time. But different circumstances encouraged me to change employers."

Bieler didn’t like the way one company treated its employees. Another was losing business and breaking up teams of engineers as it trimmed expenses.

Bieler has two young children (his wife is also a civil engineer who works from home). He says he very much wants job stability now. Still, in a time when the economy and construction are picking up, he and other engineers get headhunted regularly.

"That might be uncomfortable, because you’re not looking for a change, you really want to develop a strong relationship with your current employer,” Bieler muses. “So having that interrupted is never part of the plan."

But actually, it is part of someone’s plan: the employer trying to steal someone else’s employees away.

Scott Schaefer knows this game first-hand. He’s Enterprise Director of Human Capital Strategy in the human resources department at Sanford Health, based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s a fast-growing nonprofit medical network with 26,000 employees in the Upper Midwest.

“The age of LinkedIn and Facebook—all this social media—has really expanded our ability to recruit,” says Schaefer, “but it’s also expanded our employees in terms of looking for other work as well.”

Schaefer readily admits that his trolling on all those social-media sites, looking for professional talent to poach all over the country, creates something of a loyalty paradox.

“We want those folks to jump ship,” Schaefer says, “and we want that talent here. So we recruit them. But that’s also why we invest in things like employee engagement, so that they want to stay here, so that they are loyal to Sanford once they’re here.”

Maybe he shouldn’t count on it, though.

Even professionals who like their jobs are on the lookout for new opportunities pretty much all the time these days.

Elizabeth Shapiro is 28, she graduated from the University of California-Santa Cruz and now lives in Los Angeles. She just got a new job in business development and investor relations at a regional business organization. She's held four jobs since college. The most recent--at the San Francisco Food Bank--lasted five years.

Shapiro likes her new job a lot. She says it’s challenging, and promising, and she hopes it lasts at least another five years.

Still, she stays active on LinkedIn, and she knows potential employers might look her up.

“I don’t think it undermines my commitment or loyalty to my current employer,” she says, “because that relationship is a two-way street. At any time they could fire me for whatever reason that they needed to. And at any time I could quit and go do something else.”

Shapiro has a philosophy about the current work world.

“As employers continue to show less loyalty to their employees over the past fifty years, employees kind of reflect that,” she says. “They know they need to keep their options open. Because your pension might not be there, your benefits might not be there, you could get laid off at any time.”

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

Bernardo Bieler and his wife, Noemi, who is also a civil engineer and works from home, with their new baby, at home in the City of Doral, Miami-Dade County.

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