The Great Job Outmigration: Workers Are Increasingly Looking to Switch Occupations as the Great Resignation Accelerates
The data is in, and it shows that more and more, employees are not simply quitting their present jobs, but setting their sights on changing careers, rather than simply chasing higher pay. This article examines what this means for companies of all sizes in an increasingly competitive - and a bit crazy - job market today.
You see the signs EVERYWHERE today. Drive down any major street in your town, and on the front of every fast food restaurant, every retail store, every….everything seemingly, you see the same sign over and over again. The sign may be a message made out of arrangeable letters on the store’s marquee, stenciled on a large banner, or simply a sign placed in their front window. But in each and every instance, the sign is almost the same: “We’re hiring…and We’ll pay you more than the store/restaurant down the street!”
The message is clear for everyone to see that management everywhere seems to be employing the same strategy to combat the so-called “Great Resignation” that is happening across the economy today, namely “throwing money at the problem.” From the smallest of customer-facing businesses to the largest of such enterprises, from restaurants to retailers and more, those in charge of these companies seem to be reading out of the same playbook and trying to solve today’s very real staffing crisis - which is dramatically impacting companies’ abilities to not just effectively deliver services, but in many instances, to even fully operate - by offering higher and higher starting pay to new hires - while not necessarily increasing pay to their present employees!
As a strategic management consultant and professor, we know that managing is often a “follow the leader” proposition. No, contrary to many of the myths that exist in terms of what constitutes “great” - or even “good” management, all too often, management decisions - whether made in a fancy Fortune 500 boardroom or in the back room of a small business - are simply a game of “follow the leader.” Once one company, especially a market leader (like Starbucks or McDonald’s in fast food and Walmart or Target in retailing) makes a move, everybody - large, small, and in between - follows suit. A manager driving into work one day sees a sign with a fast food joint that says, “Starting Pay: $10 an Hour.” So what does he or she do? They create a sign or a banner saying that they’ll pay $11 an hour! And then down the street, their competitors - either directly or just for workers - say that they’ll pay $12, $13…$15 or more an hour for new workers. And pretty soon, the “strategy” for “solving” the worker shortage becomes simply a felt need to offer higher and higher starting wages, which yes, begins a game of musical chairs, as some - well many - workers do jump from one company to another (and then maybe another) to raise their personal fortunes.
Is this common practice inflationary? Definitely. Is this effective? Maybe - at least in the short-term. Will it work in the long-term? The prognosis is not good, as it simply raises employers’ costs while not working to solve the underlying issues that are causing workers to be willing - and eager - to leave their jobs to seek a different - and better - future.
What we are seeing today is something very different in terms of not just the relationship of workers to their employers, but more and more, how they perceive what their work is, what it could be, and indeed, what it might or even should be. In a prior article on this matter making use of the same data set employed in the present research (“The ‘Churn Rate:’ Insights into Just How Many Workers Are Leaving Jobs Today and What This Portends for the Future of Employment”), this author examined just how profound the amount of “churn” (with the “Churn Rate” being the percentage of workers in an occupational area who leave their job — for whatever reason — in the course of a year). Consider that last year, with a Churn Rate of 17.85% across the top 100 occupational groups continually tracked by the Census Bureau, that translates into a headline making fact that well over 20 million workers left their jobs just in 2021! But the open question - a very important and transformative one - is simply this: Why are people leaving their jobs at a rate far higher than they ever have today?
Certainly, in the months and years to come, there will be intense interest in not just researching this “why” question, but in building a great deal of actionable advice - from books and articles to Ted Talks to yes, consulting services that businesses - and even non-profits and government agencies - will readily spend big bucks for to provide them with “the” solutions on how to better manage in what I foresee to be an ever-increasingly “free agent economy.” However, at this juncture, it is important to just gain greater insight into how this phenomenon of increasingly “light” commitment of workers not just to their companies, but to their present occupations and even to the notion of “working” in what we commonly understand to be a “job” today.
And so this article aims to present some fascinating insights to be gleaned from one specific aspect of the latest employment data coming out of the Census Bureau.
The Census Data on Job “Switchers” versus Job “Quitters”
Recently, the non-profit, non-partisan group, USA Facts, released a report (Which Americans are leaving their occupations?) looking at the most recent 5 years (2017-2021) of Census data, examining employment trends spanning the pre-pandemic, pandemic, and now, the post-pandemic periods. While the first article examined just how many people were leaving their jobs across the top 100 occupational groups, this article focuses on the all-important “why” question. The Census data differentiated between two reasons why people quit. The first we will call “switching,” these being defined as “workers who left their jobs for another occupation.” The second category are those workers who truly were “quitting” - quitting not just their immediate job, but capturing those who “stopped working entirely!”
Obviously, we would love to know more about both categories of workers who left their jobs in 2021, just as we were coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic and entering a relative economic boom (at least on the employment front), where workers suddenly had much greater leverage than almost ever before in terms of the employment equation. Hopefully, the Census Bureau, in future job tracking efforts, will try and “parse the numbers” more granularly, so that we can see more deeply into both categories of departing employees. For instance, it would be useful to know how many who switched jobs simply “switched” to another company, doing similar work, or if they truly switched occupations (i.e. left the field entirely), moved to a related line of work within the same industry (e.g. a person who was formerly a waiter or waitress becoming a food delivery driver with Doordash, Uber Eats, etc,), or merely switched between very related jobs within the same industry (e.g. that same waiter/waitress moving from one restaurant to another). Along the same lines, we would also love to gain more insights into those who were quitting (i.e. those who “stopped working entirely”). In the Census data, this includes all those who left their present full-time job and did not take another. Of course today, that encompasses not just those who might have either decided to retire from the work world entirely (for age, health, family, or personal reasons) or who might have difficulty finding work (again, for whatever the reason), but those who might have quit their “regular” job to follow their own pursuits (e.g. start a new business or go “full-time” with their “side gig,” go back to school, join the military, etc.). Thus, the “quitting” categorization encompasses far, far more than those who simply retire from full-time employment.
As often happens however, government agencies do not move fast enough to change with the circumstances, and so this is the data we have with the “switching” versus “quitting” dichotomy. And yet, there are some remarkable results to be seen just distinguishing between the “switchers” and the “quitters” across occupations last year, and we’ll outline these findings in the next section.
The Numbers on Switching versus Quitting
In all, according to the Census data, 17.85% of workers quit their jobs in 2021, again representing over 20 million people. 11.58% of workers (almost 65% of those leaving their jobs) left their jobs to change jobs and/or occupations (the “switchers”), while 6.27% (just over 35% of those departing employees) left full-time employment entirely (the “quitters”). Thus, there was a significant gap - 5.3% - found between the two groups overall. This means that, in reality, with just over 120 million workers in the top 100 occupations being tracked by the Census Bureau, 6.3 million more Americans switched occupations when leaving their full-time job over those who left the “traditionally” employed workforce.
So what are the specific rates of switching versus quitting across all occupations today? What are they in your particular industry or line of work? Delving deeper into the Census data, we can derive the rates of switching versus quitting workers across the top 100 occupations tracked by the Census Bureau last year (2021). What you see below in Table 1 is a ranking of the 100 most common occupations according to the ratio of switching versus quitting workers for 2021. Now in actuality, the occupational areas are ranked 1 to 99, as the Census data separates out production workers into 2 categories, rather than presenting them as a single group.
Table 1: Ranking the 100 Most Common Occupations According to the Ratio of Switching versus Quitting Workers for 2021
1. Credit Counselors and Loan Officers: 1100% (11% Switching; <1% Quitting)
2. General and Operations Managers: 1000% (11% Switching; 1% Quitting)
3. Computer and Information Systems Managers: 800% (9% Switching; 1% Quitting)
4. Social and Community Service Managers: 700% (16% Switching; 2% Quitting)
5. Wholesale/Manufacturing Sales (Sales Representatives, Wholesale and Manufacturing): 600% (14% Switching; 2% Quitting)
6. Financial Managers: 600% (7% Switching; 1% Quitting)
7. Insurance Sales Agents: 467% (17% Switching; 3% Quitting)
8. Real Estate Brokers and Sales Agents: 450% (11% Switching; 2% Quitting)
9. Automotive Service Technicians and Mechanics: 400% (15% Switching; 3% Quitting)
10. Managers in Marketing, Advertising, and Public Relations: 400% (10% Switching; 2% Quitting)
11. Personal Financial Advisors: 350% (9% Switching; 2% Quitting)
12. Counselors : 350% (9% Switching; 2% Quitting)
13. Social Workers: 350% (9% Switching; 2% Quitting)
14. Industrial and Refractory Machinery Mechanics: 325% (17% Switching; 4% Quitting)
15. Welding, Soldering, and Brazing Workers: 320% (21% Switching; 5% Quitting)
16. Human Resources Managers: 320% (21% Switching; 5% Quitting)
17. Food Supervisors (First-Line Supervisors of Food Preparation and Serving Workers): 300% (20% Switching; 5% Quitting)
18. Painters, Construction, and Maintenance: 300% (20% Switching; 5% Quitting)
19. Plumbing (Pipelayers, Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters): 300% (16% Switching; 4% Quitting)
20. HVAC Technicians (Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers): 300% (12% Switching; 3% Quitting)
21. Computer Programmers: 300% (12% Switching; 3% Quitting)
22. Police Officers and Detectives: 300% (8% Switching; 2% Quitting)
23. Designers: 250% (14% Switching; 4% Quitting)
24. Property, Real Estate, and Community Association Managers: 250% (14% Switching; 4% Quitting)
25. Physicians and Surgeons: 250% (7% Switching; 2% Quitting)
26. Special Education Teachers: 250% (7% Switching; 2% Quitting)
27. Sales Representatives (Services, All Other Areas): 240% (17% Switching; 5% Quitting)
28. Human Resources, Training, and Labor Relations Specialists: 233% (10% Switching; 3% Quitting)
29. Preschool and Kindergarten Teachers: 225% (13% Switching; 4% Quitting)
30. Industrial Truck and Tractor Operators: 200% (18% Switching; 6% Quitting)
31. Diagnostic Related Technologists and Technicians: 200% (15% Switching; 5% Quitting)
32. Food Service and Lodging Managers: 180% (14% Switching; 5% Quitting)
33. Other Business Operations and Management Specialists: 180% (14% Switching; 5% Quitting)
34. Billing and Posting Clerks: 180% (14% Switching; 5% Quitting)
35. Civil Engineers: 175% (11% Switching; 4% Quitting)
36. Construction Equipment Operators (Except Paving, Surfacing and Tamping Equipment Operators): 175% (11% Switching; 4% Quitting)
37. Bus and Truck Mechanics and Diesel Engine Specialists: 175% (11% Switching; 4% Quitting)
38. Health Diagnosing and Treating Practitioner Support Technicians: 171% (19% Switching; 7% Quitting)
39. Computer Scientists and Systems Analysts (Including Network Systems Analysts and Web Developers): 167% (8% Switching; 3% Quitting)
40. Medical and Health Services Managers: 160% (13% Switching; 5% Quitting)
41. Bartenders : 156% (23% Switching; 9% Quitting)
42. Inspectors, Testers, Sorters, Samplers, and Weighers: 143% (17% Switching; 7% Quitting)
43. Receptionists and Information Clerks: 129% (16% Switching; 7% Quitting)
44. Educational Administrators: 120% (11% Switching; 5% Quitting)
45. Personal Care Aides: 114% (15% Switching; 7% Quitting)
46. Bus and Ambulance Drivers and Attendants: 100% (12% Switching; 6% Quitting)
47. Engineering Technicians (Except Drafters): 100% (10% Switching; 5% Quitting)
48. Corrections (Sheriffs, Bailiffs, Correctional Officers, and Jailers): 100% (8% Switching; 4% Quitting)
49. Software Developers (Applications and Systems Software): 100% (6% Switching; 3% Quitting)
50. Shipping, Receiving, and Traffic Clerks: 86% (13% Switching; 7% Quitting)
51. Maintenance and Repair Workers, General: 86% (13% Switching; 7% Quitting)
52. Construction Managers: 75% (7% Switching; 4% Quitting)
53. Licensed Practical and Vocational Nurses: 67% (10% Switching; 6% Quitting)
54. Management Analysts: 67% (10% Switching; 6% Quitting)
55. Secondary School Teachers: 67% (5% Switching; 3% Quitting)
56. Customer Service Representatives: 63% (13% Switching; 8% Quitting)
57. Combined Food Preparation and Serving Workers (Including Fast Food): 62% (21% Switching; 13% Quitting)
58. Drivers/Sales Workers and Truck Drivers: 57% (11% Switching; 7% Quitting)
59. Computer Support Specialists: 57% (11% Switching; 7% Quitting)
60. Recreation and Fitness Workers: 46% (19% Switching; 13% Quitting)
61. Food Preparation Workers: 45% (16% Switching; 11% Quitting)
62. Stock Clerks and Order Fillers: 45% (16% Switching; 11% Quitting)
63. Production Workers (All*): 44% (13% Switching; 9% Quitting)
64. Clergy: 44% (13% Switching; 9% Quitting)
65. Secretaries and Administrative Assistants: 43% (10% Switching; 7% Quitting)
66. Postsecondary Teachers: 40% (7% Switching; 5% Quitting)
67. Hand Packers and Packagers: 36% (15% Switching; 11% Quitting)
68. Restaurant Servers (Waiters and Waitresses): 36% (19% Switching; 14% Quitting)
69. Bookkeeping, Accounting, and Auditing Clerks: 33% (8% Switching; 6% Quitting)
70. Public Administrators (Chief Executives and Legislators/Public Administration): 33% (4% Switching; 3% Quitting)
71. Office Supervisors (First-Line Supervisors of Office and Administrative Support Workers): 33% (4% Switching; 3% Quitting)
72. Laborers and Freight, Stock, and Material Movers: 33% (12% Switching; 9% Quitting)
73. Hairdressers, Hairstylists, and Cosmetologists: 30% (13% Switching; 10% Quitting)
74. Retail Salespersons: 27% (14% Switching; 11% Quitting)
75. Office Clerks, General: 17% (14% Switching; 12% Quitting)
76. Couriers and Messengers: 15% (15% Switching; 13% Quitting)
77. Childcare Workers : 14% (16% Switching; 14% Quitting)
78. Other Teachers and Instructors: 13% (17% Switching; 15% Quitting)
79. Chefs and Cooks: 10% (11% Switching; 10% Quitting)
80. Athletics (Athletes, Coaches, Umpires and Related Workers): 0% (17% Switching; 17% Quitting)
81. Nursing, Psychiatric and Home Health Aides: 0% (9% Switching; 9% Quitting)
82. Janitors and Building Cleaners: 0% (9% Switching; 9% Quitting)
83. Security (Security Guards and Gaming Surveillance Officers): 0% (7% Switching; 7% Quitting)
84. Construction Supervisors (First-Line Supervisors of Construction Trades and Extraction Workers): 0% (3% Switching; 3% Quitting)
85. Production/Operations Supervisors (First-Line Supervisors of Production and Operating Workers): 0% (3% Switching; 3% Quitting)
86. Cashiers: -7% (14% Switching; 15% Quitting)
87. Construction Laborers: -13% (7% Switching; 8% Quitting)
88. Grounds Maintenance Workers: -14% (12% Switching; 14% Quitting)
89. Elementary and Middle School Teachers: -20% (4% Switching; 5% Quitting)
90. Carpenters : -20% (4% Switching; 5% Quitting)
91. Electricians: -25% (3% Switching; 4% Quitting)
92. Sales Managers (First-Line Supervisors of Sales Workers): -25% (3% Switching; 4% Quitting)
93. Registered Nurses: -25% (3% Switching; 4% Quitting)
94. Taxi Drivers and Chauffeurs: -32% (15% Switching; 22% Quitting)
95. Maids and Housekeeping Cleaners: -36% (9% Switching; 14% Quitting)
96. Teacher Assistants: -36% (7% Switching; 11% Quitting)
97. Paralegals and Legal Assistants: -50% (3% Switching; 6% Quitting)
98. Accountants and Auditors: -80% (1% Switching; 5% Quitting)
99. Judicial Workers (Lawyers, Judges, Magistrates, and Other Judicial Workers): -100% (0% Switching; 3% Quitting)
* Note: Production Workers (All*) - Category Combines Both Production Workers Doing General Assembly Work and Those Employed Producing or Assembling Semiconductors and Other Computing Technology
Source Data: https://usafacts.org/projects/jobs/who-leaves
The average for the switching versus quitting ratio, across all occupations for 2021, was 60.59%. Now overall however, as you can see, there were significant imbalances in the switching vs. quitting ratios across a vast majority of occupational groups. In fact, just over half (49 of 99) of all occupations had a ratio of 100% or more, and approximately 80% (79 of 99) occupational groups had a positive ratio. This translates into far more workers switching occupations - or at least switching employers - than those who left the actively employed workforce.
What is even more interesting than the overall trend that far more people are switching occupations as opposed to quitting their jobs is the common threads we see between the occupational groups having the highest switching versus quitting ratios. First, 9 of the 10 occupations with the highest ratios are definitely white collar jobs, with the lone exception being Automotive Service Technicians and Mechanics in the 9th position (with a ratio of 400%). The top ranked occupation - having a 1100% ratio of those who switched versus those who quit their jobs - was Credit Counselors and Loan Officers. As you can see, managerial occupations (General and Operations Managers: 1000%; Computer and Information Systems Managers: 800%; Social and Community Service Managers: 700%; Financial Managers: 600%; and Managers in Marketing, Advertising, and Public Relations: 400%) took 3 of the top 4, 4 of the top 6, and 5 of the top 10 rankings of occupational groups. Likewise, those working in sales occupations were also among the most likely to switch away from their occupation (or employer) as opposed to quitting and leaving the full-time employed workforce. In fact, sales occupations, with Wholesale/Manufacturing Sales at #5, Insurance Sales Agents at #7, and Real Estate Brokers and Sales Agents at #8, also saw some of the highest ratios of switching versus quitting of any major occupational group.
The clear message to be derived from the foregoing analysis is this: Employers of every size and in every industry face a significant challenge not just today, but in the years ahead. The signs we see today with companies attacking the present workforce crisis simply by “throwing money at the problem” is just a “Band-Aid” approach to what will be a very tough, very systemic problem in terms of the employment market. The simple fact is that more and more, people are significantly rethinking the whole notion of work and careers. In the wake of economic uncertainties, the COVID-19 pandemic, and fast-changing norms and notions about the relationship of one’s work life and one’s family life - and even life beyond work, “work” is a changing concept for more and more of us. And so for companies, both large and small alike, the challenge will be greater than ever before to not just retain workers in the short-term, but to find new, innovative ways to keep them engaged - and employed with them - over the long-term. McKinsey has termed the current environment for employers to be “The Great Attrition,” and unless management changes the way it views workers and begins to find ways to better engage and retain them, the constant churn of employees - and the costs - both direct (in terms of hiring and training) and indirect (in terms of impact on customer service and the morale of other workers) will only continue to mount up and reach crisis proportions for companies everywhere.
About David Wyld
David Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld.
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