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Working in America: Career Making in 21st Century America

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Long gone are the days when workers in America landed a job early in their careers at a company they'd stay with through retirement. Increasingly, Americans will work at ten, fifteen or more jobs across a thirty-plus year career. In this edition of our Working in America series, we explore the current state of career planning, speaking with Aerotek research analysts and managers who specialize in helping people across diverse disciplines manage meaningful and rewarding careers.

The pace of change

It’s been just one generation since fresh entrants to the workforce expected anything close to employment for life at a single company. A confluence of factors, including economic, social, cultural and technological, have all contributed to a very different work world now compared to the 60s and 70s.

LinkedIn’s study from a year ago highlights this growing difference by looking at the number of jobs fresh graduates had in the first five years of their career. The chart below reveals the rate of change for the 2006-2010 grads, compared to those who graduated twenty years earlier.

Infographic showing job turnover five years after graduation for 2006-2010 group

The study reveals some significant trends, including an almost doubling of the average number of jobs in those first five years of post-school careers. As the chart above shows, the increase for average number of jobs in just a twenty-year period more than doubled for some industries like media and entertainment. This trend is slightly more stable — only 50 to 60% increases — in the manufacturing and automotive sectors. As CNN’s coverage of the study puts it, “Millennials that stay in their position the longest typically work in industries where they make things like autos, manufacturing and oil.”

What makes us move?

A recent salary benchmarking and trends analysis developed by Aerotek reveals “that three in four full-time workers are either actively looking or are open to new opportunities.”

Unsurprisingly, the study reveals the primary motive for moving is compensation, with 50% of respondents saying their reason for moving is for “higher salary. As a deeper measure of the waning sense of loyalty to employers, 59% say a higher base salary would make them consider a new opportunity.

The LinkedIn study author Guy Berger claims his findings — based on a sample of 3 million professionals — support similar trends, as “…millennials want to move up the ranks quickly. One of the fastest ways to do that is to change jobs. A new role often comes with a more elevated title and a substantial pay raise.” (15 percent or more versus one percent to three percent by for staying in a current role)

Kerry Heffner, a research analyst with Aerotek confirmed what these studies suggest. “Workers across many professions have come to realize an essential truth about the new jobs economy, which is that your value increases more and faster when you move jobs. It varies by industry but we’re seeing that about three years, on average, can be the optimal length tour at a given employer before moving on and getting the increase in compensation you’re looking for.”

Calculating the new normal

Looking at job hopping trends among twenty-somethings is one way to gauge emerging career management strategies among the new professional generation. It’s also insightful to view the longer game through the lens of the average number of jobs across the full length a career.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that “the average worker currently holds ten different jobs before age forty, and this number is projected to grow.” Coverage of studies from Forrester Research predicts that the current generation entering the workforce is projected to hold twelve to fifteen jobs in their lifetime.

Our experience tells us that something else is changing beyond just the number of jobs the emerging generation of workers in America will work. The number of careers is increasing, too.

Reinvention as career strategy

Angela Brill, an Aerotek market research analyst, told us “One of the things we tell people in the early- to mid-phases of their careers is that it’s never too late for reinvention. There is almost always going to be time and opportunity to course correct. As an example, some of the engineers we work with are consciously taking the long-view. Many are strategically stringing together up to twenty contracting jobs over the course of a thirty or forty-year career. For some professionals, including some of those engineers, not all of those jobs will even necessarily be in the same skill or industry.”

Sometimes, the economy plays a big role in this phenomenon.

Angela said, “We certainly see professionals who sense they are reaching a mid-career crisis. We suggest they sit down and consult with industry specialists to thoughtfully plan career change moves. As a result of these mid-career strategic shifts, we’re seeing a lot of skills migration from one industry to another. A few years ago, when the Great Recession saw a big downturn in construction and energy jobs, a lot of workers in those industries took their skills elsewhere. One of the challenges businesses face is when a recovery comes, frequently those talented workers don’t come back it.”

Skills gap

Beyond the growing numbers of jobs and careers a person is likely to hold, there’s another trend catching the eyes of industry analysts and hiring managers — a growing skills gap.

A 2016 Fast Company article quotes Devin Fidler from the Institute of the Future saying, “There are some overarching shifts poised to change the nature of work itself over the next decade. That includes a demand for new skills and strategies that could help people to thrive in future work environments.” One of the challenges such changes present is a growing number of jobs requiring skills for which available talent pools don’t yet exist.

Eddie Beaver is a market research analyst with Aerotek and he says, “In almost every industry, we’re seeing a fundamental misalignment between the skills the new generation of job seekers are coming into the workplace with and the skills required by those companies.”

Angela expanded on the problem. “We’ve seen studies that show about a quarter of all college students enter school to get an engineering degree. We certainly need engineers and frankly, engineers are generally a skill that can pick and choose their job offers. But the problem we’re encountering is that so many new graduates coming into the workforce are not coming out with the skills they need to adequately fill the industrial demand. The uncomfortable reality is that many universities and colleges are missing something crucial — call it the human element. They come out of school with training that hasn’t prepared them to actually do the job.”

Angela continued. “This is compounded by another trend — companies increasingly are not investing in training their workforce. In a way, competing companies are relying on each other to give their eventual hires the hands-on experience they need. But this isn’t solving for the widening skills gap that Eddie described. What happens is that staffing becomes a bandage to a strategic problem they will need to eventually deal with.”

Training: whose job is it?

There’s growing evidence that schools — from universities to community colleges, trade schools and high schools — are recognizing the need to better partner with industry in local markets to offer the kind of training required to give workers the skills and experience they need to meet the changing needs of industry. One example is the Michigan Energy Workforce Development Consortium, an industry-led partnership of more than fifty organizations trying to solve for a very real problem in the Michigan marketplace: the shortage of qualified workers to fill the 97,000 jobs in the energy sector. According to Cision, the Consortium “created Michigan's 17th career cluster in energy, enabling high schools and community colleges to incorporate energy-related courses in their curriculum.”

It’s clear that more has changed in how U.S. workers craft and manage their careers than just the number and nature of the jobs they take. The when, how, where and who of skills-training has changed radically from an earlier generation’s traditional path of front-loaded formal education setting up a career of work. In a world where few professionals are afforded the luxury of job-supported education, American workers are increasingly on their own when it comes to training and education beyond on-the-job experience.

In a recent interview, Antonia Cusumano, people and organization lead at PwC, told Fast Company the self-help training model is already taking hold in a generation of workers comfortable with learning new things from watching YouTube videos. “People are going to have 10 minutes on the bus ride home when commuting. You’re going to pull up an app from one of the many businesses out there that are doing these mini-clips of video learning. I’d like to learn 10 minutes on C++ so that I can brush up on my coding. You’re going to see learning shift to these little mini bite-sized chunks of information that you can get on the go and when you need it and at any given time”.

Our research team sees considerable evidence of this self-learning model already well underway. Eddie Beaver says, “Many of the ambitious contractors we work with are turning to online training courses like Coursera, SkillShare and LinkedIn. But we’re also seeing creative real-world approaches, like aspiring phlebotomists volunteering in community health clinics to hone their skills and technique for taking blood. The new reality about professional education in this new world is this: learning never ends”.

Room at the top?

Our research team talked about two other trends which are important factors in how businesses find and keep top talent. Kerry Heffner explains. “In some industries, we see senior-level managers reach a point in their career where maybe they hit their peak earnings potential, maybe they’ve found their sweet-spot for job satisfaction and are comfortable staying put. In some companies, there’s less room at the top, especially for the more ambitious and talented up-and-coming generation of workers.”

Angela agreed, “It’s true. We’re seeing older executives in some companies are hanging on longer than they might have a generation ago. Whether it’s from financial security or other pressures, this creates a logjam at the top of the management ladder. If senior executives aren’t retiring, it reduces the opportunities for younger managers to move up. We’re starting to see some companies creating new roles which offer younger staff a chance for advancement. Retention of top talent becomes a huge issue since companies know that their best and brightest young execs can increase their market value significantly if they leave and take their skills elsewhere. Skills, by the way, that in many cases their current employer has made a big investment in cultivating.”

From an industry standpoint, traditional companies who fail to provide career-path opportunities and job progression within their organizations fail to create loyalty and retention of some of their best people. Kerry pointed out another interesting trend stemming from this. “What’s happening more and more when it comes to long-term career management and reward, staffing companies like Aerotek end up creating longer-lasting relationships with professionals than the traditional employers once did.”

Solving for brain drain

Although it might seem contradictory to the trend of executive logjam, another troubling trend is the industrial brain drain some companies suffer when deeply experienced specialists do retire. As more and more baby boomers wind down their long working careers, they’re taking a lot of invaluable learning with them.

Kerry told us, “We’re witnessing a generation of skilled professionals — engineers, machinists, welders and other specialists from almost every industry retiring in large waves. They’re taking their advanced knowledge and skills, amassed across a long career’s worth of experience, out of the workforce. This brain drain is causing big issues for a lot of companies.”

Angela agreed, adding, “This is one of the things that contractors in the workforce solve for. We’re finding an increasing number of professionals who retire with a lot of valuable knowledge and skills but aren’t ready to stop working. Companies see the value of reversing this talent bleed by hiring these older, wiser workers as contractors that in many cases become mentors to the up-and-coming generation of workers. A key role we play in this constantly evolving jobs economy is matching great talent, who have productive years left in their careers, with companies who want to leverage their seasoned skills and expertise on the job.”

The business of me

If there’s a thread that connects much of the emerging career management strategies it would be control. Kerry suggests, “Control over your career destiny has replaced what we once thought of as job security in previous generations. The people who seem the most professionally gratified are the ones who take serious ownership of their careers. They are constantly putting themselves into position to learn and advance. It may sound obvious, but the successful ones all seem to realize at some point that being awesome isn’t enough, they have to have the will to advance.”

Kerry says this ambitious career self-empowerment is starting earlier than ever. “We see high school and even college grads take almost any job they can get in a company or industry they’re eager to work for. They have a plan, and it starts with working their way from the bottom up.”

Angela notes savvy career planning starts for some workers even before they graduate high school. “Many new entrants to the jobs market find their first job in the retail food and beverage industry. We’re seeing high schoolers taking culinary courses to give themselves an early career head-start in what they know is an increasingly competitive job market.”

Sometimes this newfound sense of control is about balancing risk in career management choices. According to a CNN, the rate of workers quitting their jobs can be a decent barometer for both the tight labor market as well as the growing sense of confidence and control workers in some industries are exhibiting when it comes to their overall career management strategies.

Eddie points out that a tight job market and business’s seemingly unquenchable need for new talent with new skills is creating new opportunities. “From the worker’s standpoint, you’re wanted in a way you weren’t twenty years ago. The people who approach their careers with this strategic mindset are the ones who will excel in this very dynamic world of work,” he says.

Aerotek’s unique place within the job economy — partnering with people to increase their long-term career value while helping companies solve for their increasingly complex talent needs — affords us a unique perspective. If you’re interested in learning more about how we think and work, we invite career planners to visit our job board and create a free Aerotek career account. Employers, check out the ways that we can partner with you to build a workforce that will stick around.