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Fast-Moving Job Market Gives Workers Upper Hand

1997 became a pivotal year in the employee-employer relationship. Workers emerged stronger, and better-paid, than ever.

In 1997, workers turned the table on employers, setting a trend likely to continue into 1998.

After years of being downsized, outplaced, and reengineered from their jobs, American workers finally got the upper hand. With the economy churning out more positions than firms could fill, companies were scouring the countryside for new hires.

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The tight labor market also helped give workers at United Parcel Service a victory in their strike for better jobs. And it ignited a debate on part-time work.

The American corporation, early in the 1990s, hammered home the message that the employer-employee relationship is no longer sacred. And in '97, employees took that message to heart - hopping jobs and learning how to become their own mini-corporation, available to the highest bidder.

Other trends for the year include heightened focus, if not progress, on the need to balance work and family.

One of the country's highest-ranking women executives, Brenda Barnes, left her post as CEO of Pepsi-Cola North America to spend more time with her family. Critics charged she only did it because she could afford to, but the move brought renewed attention to the difficulties of working in the high-powered '90s and being a mom....

Or a dad. A recent Monitor story on dads who scale back careers illustrated an emerging trend among men to take the Brenda Barnes route, altering work schedules to improve quality of home life.

Matt Christoff of Minneapolis, for example, gave up a promising and lucrative career with consultant blue-blood McKinsey & Co. for a job that paid less but allowed more time at home with the kids.

For working women, who still carry much of the workload at home, there seemed to be little relief. At the same time, fewer women than ever are choosing full-time motherhood. A recent Census Bureau study found that 55 percent of new mothers go back to work before their infants can walk. That compares with 31 percent in 1976.

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All told, the most important trends of 1997, which promise to carry into 1998, were:

'Brand You'

In 1997, millions of Americans declared their independence from corporate America.

After nearly half a decade of mass layoffs, workers emerged stronger, not weaker. And for the first time, more people took control of their career future, rather than relying on their company (or boss) to chart their course.

Call it the dawning of "Me Incorporated" or "Brand You."

This new breed of workers understands that job security now means keeping skills current and marketable - not with lifetime employment at one company.

And loyalty has been redefined. No longer is it time spent on the job. Rather, loyalty is "what I contribute when I'm there."

This emerging attitude will have an enormous impact on businesses' ability to recruit and retain workers.

In fact, plenty of workers have already opted to ditch corporate life to be their own bosses, a trend that will likely explode by the turn of the century.

Tight labor market

With the tightest labor market in a quarter of a century, everyone from sales clerks to systems analysts is in hot demand.

"Help wanted" signs are everywhere. One major metropolitan area says it can't find enough security guards. And states like California and Florida are combing college campuses for public school teachers.

If there's such a thing as negative employment, high-tech companies are experiencing it.

If you can program a computer, you're in the money. Indeed, salaries for everyone from chipmakers to 3-D animators have soared - and so have signing bonuses. Plenty of companies even hand them out to current employees who help recruit new hires.

And the demand doesn't look ready to fade.

A recent survey by Manpower Inc., the temporary staffing firm, found that nearly a quarter of the 16,000 businesses surveyed planned to increase hiring in early 1998 - the highest first-quarter projection in the survey's 21-year history.

As a result, look for more high schoolers and senior citizens to show up on company payrolls.

Job hopping

In a major turnaround, 1997 became the year of the "job hopper."

Buoyed by a tight labor market, Americans realized they no longer had to cling to jobs out of fear - the anxiety that made magazine covers last year. As a result, the number of employees leaving jobs voluntarily soared.

And it's a trend that promises to accelerate.

While many workers changed jobs for bigger paychecks, it wasn't all about money. They also want better opportunities, more training, and more flexibility. And companies seem more accommodating.

Balancing work and family

On the family-friendly front, progress was slow.

Many workers made gains, as some companies agreed to just about anything (including allowing new hires to work from home) just to fill slots.

Working Mother magazine, which each year ranks the top 100 family-friendly firms, held the first chief executive summit on work-family issues. More than 70 CEOs turned out.

Overall, however, working parents feel more stretched than ever, as they struggle to balance demanding careers and equally demanding family lives.

At the same time, the amount of overtime Americans are working persists at near-record levels. As a result, more workers say they'd trade more pay for more time.

Of Americans who work in an office of 100 people or more, three-fourths put in time on the weekend, according to a survey earlier this year by Steelcase, an office-furniture maker in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Americans at Work:

The Facts ...

* Average time: Eight years with current employer. Americans have, on average, worked for six employers since entering the work force.

* Average week: 43 hours. A quarter of workers are on the job 41 to 50 hours a week; 46 percent work 36 to 40 hours; and 10 percent work 51 to 60 hours.

* Part timers: Four in 10 worked in a part-time, contract, or temporary job in the past two years.

* Seeing pink: 41 percent have worked for an employer during a period of downsizing. Of those, one-third were forced out through job cuts or retirement packages, and another one-fifth left at their own initiative; 54 percent said their employer did not provide enough help with the transition.

... and the Feelings

* Nine in 10 are satisfied with their jobs (45 percent very satisfied, 46 percent somewhat satisfied).

* Eight in 10 are satisfied with their earning potential (30 percent very satisfied, 52 percent somewhat satisfied).

* Three-fourths plan to stay in current jobs for the next five years (53 percent very likely, 22 percent somewhat likely)

* Seven in 10 feel on track (47 percent) or further along (28 percent) than they expected to be.

* About half consider work a career (55 percent), and half a job (44 percent).

* Some 44 percent of working adults who lost a job because of downsizing viewed the experience as opening new opportunities.

Source: Interim Services; research by Louis Harris & Associates

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