Hiring is up; layoffs are down. Yet an improving job market hasn’t translated into feelings of security for Matt Kiefer’s team of medical debt collection specialists. Kiefer, director of operations at collections firm MediCredit Inc. in the Orlando, Florida, area, says his staff of six collectors and a few support personnel hasn’t fully recovered from painful layoffs last year. After MediCredit’s parent company the Outsource Group acquired Kiefer’s collections unit from a Florida hospital, nearly 20 people lost their jobs.
Because of increased cost-consciousness, Kiefer is no longer expensing perks like food for staff events or gift cards to reward employees. Heightening his employees’ anxiety is Florida’s still-troubled housing market, says Kiefer, who serves as president of the Florida Collectors Association.
“They’re on pins and needles,” Kiefer says. “They don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”
To try to boost his team’s morale, he is bringing in cupcakes and paying for happy-hour drinks during group outings. Even so, he fears losing stressed-out employees to burnout or to other companies. “There’s a breaking point,” he says.
Kiefer’s team is a microcosm of what’s happening across the United States. Despite job growth and fewer pink slips, many U.S. workers don’t feel very confident about their jobs. In a survey this year of nearly 600 American workers by consulting firm Right Management, 71 percent said they felt less secure in their jobs than last year, while 14 percent were just as secure and 15 percent more secure. Another survey of 1,030 U.S. employees conducted in March by the career information site Glassdoor found that 17 percent were concerned that they could be laid off in the next six months, down just 1 percentage point from the first quarter of 2010.
On the surface, ongoing—or even rising—insecurity seems surprising because the U.S. job market is showing stronger signs of improvement. In the wake of solid economic growth during the fourth quarter of 2010, U.S. employers added 216,000 jobs in March. What’s more, the number of job cuts announced by employers during the first three months of 2011 was the lowest total for a first quarter since 1995, according to outplacement services firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.
The future looks even brighter. Right Management Inc.’s parent company, staffing giant ManpowerGroup, released a survey of U.S. employers earlier this year showing that 16 percent anticipate an increase in staff levels during the second quarter of 2011, while only 6 percent expect a decrease.
Among the companies hiring now is MediCredit. But despite several open positions and the perception that medical bill collection is a healthy industry given consumers’ debt problems, Kiefer’s team remains on edge. He says a new hire can make existing employees fear they may be replaced, especially after the cuts resulting from the takeover.
Many other employees remain anxious after having watched friends and family get laid off and struggle to find new jobs. They also see worrisome aspects in the economic recovery. Many of the new jobs are relatively low-paying, service-sector positions, says Michael Evangelist, policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group. He also points to the rise in long-term unemployment. Nearly 46 percent of those considered officially unemployed have been without work for 27 weeks or more. That figure had stayed below 30 percent from January 1948 to June 2009. “Those that do lose their job have a heck of a time finding new employment,” Evangelist says.
Doug Matthews, president and chief operating officer of Right Management, says job insecurity stems partly from companies clamming up, afraid to promise greater job stability for fear that more cuts still could come. He also sees global problems—including natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan—fueling workers’ worries. “It gets people in a spiral of [feeling], ‘I’m out of control,’ ” Matthews says.
This insecurity shouldn’t be dismissed as mere jitters. Failure to address the anxiety could diminish productivity and cause top performers to seek jobs at organizations that promise greater security. In a 2010 study of U.S. employees by consulting firm Towers Watson & Co., respondents ranked “security and stability” as their top priority.
To ease anxiety, Matthews suggests talking about severance benefits that at least provide a short-term cushion for laid-off workers. He also recommends one-on-one conversations with workers about career goals and greater investment in training programs if possible.
Rusty Rueff, a board director at Glassdoor and former human resources executive at PepsiCo Inc. and video game maker Electronic Arts Inc., argues that in the wake of pay cuts and in light of strong corporate profits, it’s time for companies to demonstrate their commitment to workers again. “There’s a restoration of employee benefits that has to be looked at,” he says. He also believes that employers should deal with workers’ angst by communicating not only their strategy for success, but also how each employee fits into that plan.
Insecurity is especially intense this year for state and local government employees. For example, Dan Maslana, a public school teacher in Pleasanton, California, is feeling nervous about his job security, partly because of anti-public employee sentiment that has been spreading across the country.
Maslana has worked as a physical education teacher for 13 years at Mohr Elementary
School, where he is an elected union representative. But he says the current political environment has spurred thoughts of a career change.
In his view, insecurity and other challenges are affecting education quality, even though many teachers are trying to rise above the fray and put students’ needs first.
“When people are stressed from increased workload and feel their profession is under constant attack, I believe teacher effectiveness suffers,” he says.
Such anxiety extends to private sector employees, as well.
A software engineer who works for a defense contractor says he has “considerable anxiety” about his job stability. The engineer, who asked to remain anonymous because he fears possible retaliation by his employer, says foreign guest workers and the continued offshoring of jobs threaten veteran technology professionals. Already, he says, he has lost two database administration jobs because of offshore outsourcing.
“There are few, if any, places to go should I lose my present position,” says the engineer, who is in his late 40s. “I feel like I’m now in my last stand.”
Workforce Management, May 2011, p. 3-4 -- Subscribe Now!