As the economy starts to pick up some energy, workers who have not found new job opportunities for two years or longer might now be seeing light at the end of a long tunnel.
But what would be encouraging to employees could cause a different kind of headache for their bosses. If a fresh crop of job prospects does come along, it could signal a round of departures by critical workers.
Some analysts who watch employment trends say that if the economy continues to improve, many employers could face a serious "brain drain" issue.
Thousands of employees who once held high-ranking positions were forced to take lesser jobs when companies downsized. These are people who are probably looking for a way back to the executive suite.
And for many others it is strictly a money matter. Employees who were not laid off because of the recession were asked to do much more work with little or no financial reward
Data show the trend has started already, but some observers question how quickly it will spread.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 50 percent of all employees who left private-sector jobs in September did so voluntarily. In other words, it was their decision to quit. A year earlier, only 41 percent left on their own accord.
John Challenger, CEO of the corporate headhunter firm Challenger Gray and Christmas, said an increasing number of job seekers are people who have been with their firms a year or less and are now looking for positions commensurate with pre-recession levels. Challenger said some companies are focusing on the employees they want to keep and trying to figure out how to do this.
"The smart companies recognize that they're more vulnerable to losing key people now than at any time in the last two or three years," Challenger said. "It's a sign the economy is providing more opportunities. When there's more flexibility, the free agents start moving."
Some companies might still not be liquid enough to entice people with pay raises. Better benefits and other incentives, such as tuition reimbursements, might come into play, Challenger said.
"Companies are very aware who the top performers are and the load they've carried," he said. "A lot (of workers) have thought that during the recession, they hadn't been paid enough, and they hunkered down and waited.
"Now the situation is improved, and they're the first ones to vote with their feet."
Workers can't yet afford to be too choosy, but there are signs that now there might be some options, said Roy Paulson, president and CEO of Paulson Manufacturing Corp., a Temecula, Calif.-based firm that makes plastic shields used by law enforcement.
Paulson said wages eventually will be driven up by a normal rate of inflation, but right now some companies' hands are being forced.
"The talent is getting antsy, and some of them have been eyed by other companies," Paulson said.
Art Gage, who has run a Riverside, Calif.-based executive search firm for more than 30 years, said the recovery is not far enough along to allow workers much flexibility. Most of the ones he talks to are happy they still have jobs.
Gage said corporations still have to repair their bank accounts before they invest in their futures. Those investments would include deals to ensure that the best employees don't leave.
"Companies have dropped salaries. If they started hiring again the pay would be low," Gage said. "If you were an employee who wanted to make a move it would be difficult to match what you're currently making, at least for a while."
(E-mail Press-Enterprise reporter Jack Katzanek at jkatzanek(at)PE.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)