Job-Hopping Is the New Normal, But You Need to Get Your Story Straight

Career Advice

There was a time when “changing jobs” meant changing positions within the company for which you already worked. The general career path after getting hired looked something like this: Put in 40 years, get a silver watch from the company, retire, and collect your pension. Milk was delivered by milkmen in those days, glass bottles and all. Those days are over.

If you are new to the job marketplace, or a young veteran transitioning from the military to the civilian world, you have new employment realities with which to contend. Walking into a job interview, you should still hope for a great, full time job at a single company that will carry you through to your AARP card, but you should also know that you’re probably not going to retire from the first company that hires you. Or the one that hires you after that. Or the one after that. In other words, you might want to familiarize yourself with the new normal of “job hopping.”

THE FIVE-YEAR CAREER

Historically speaking, job hopping has been seen as a red flag by recruiters across all fields. It was a sign that you were a flake, someone incapable of committing to a company (or not invited to do so). Somewhere along the way, however, the workplace and the work force both experienced seismic shifts in attitude. Employers battling the economic downturn discovered the safer and more cost-efficient route of hiring you as a contractor and keeping you in that role as long as possible, holding out the hope of something permanent opening up, but making no promises to that effect. Employees, meanwhile, found a new devotion to “quality of work life”—that is, a satisfying workplace culture bolstered by meaningful work.

In the case of companies, the Great Recession sometimes made the prospect of bringing on full time “lifers” seem less like an asset than a long term cost. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk without benefits, social security expenses, or retirement? Moreover, because full time employees increase company headcount, there are stock market considerations in play. Headcount must be justified to stockholders; contractors, as a rule, less so. (There are caveats to this strategy, primarily involving the U.S. government no longer turning a blind eye to the non-hiring of de facto employees.)

Move Over, Gen X – The Millennials are Here

As for the shift in employee attitudes, that corresponds to the new demography of the workplace. Last year, according to Pew Research, millennials surpassed Generation X to become the largest segment of the U.S. labor force. And if you haven’t read previously from the eleven billion articles on the subject, millennials have their own ways of doing things. As reported previously in Forbes, millennials place great emphasis on jobs being “interesting” and “positive.” Furthermore, having come of age during an economic downturn (though not an economic collapse a la the Great Depression), millennials, fairly or not, see employers as being disloyal—or at least, unwilling to demonstrate fidelity in bad times—and thus feel no emotional obligation to show loyalty of their own.

As a result of all this, the new corporate ladder doesn’t run up a single building, starting at the receptionist’s desk and ending in the corner office of the CEO. Rather, the corporate ladder looks more like a series of companies stacked atop one another. Each rung of the ladder is a different job with a different employer, and with that, new projects, new chances to prove oneself, and greater opportunities to add to one’s portfolio and skillset, thus become more valuable to the next company one rung up. This necessarily requires job hopping every few years, and your resume will reflect this.

(This concept is perhaps most evident in the information technology and software development fields, where companies can post absurdly specific job advertisements, and then wait for that one person to walk in who checks every box on the page—this person is known as “the unicorn,” and the disparate and plentiful job skills possessed by the unicorn are rarely amassed at a single employer.)

GET YOUR STORY STRAIGHT

I spoke with Lisa Quast, a certified career coach and author whose latest book, Secrets of a Hiring Manager Turned Career Coach, is an A-Z guide for job seekers. She explained to me that job hopping isn’t the resume-killer that it once was. “It’s much less of a bad thing now,” she said, “simply because when the economy crashed, 30 million people were out of work in the United States alone.” Such massive levels of unemployment meant that many quality workers now had employment gaps or had to do consulting work for shorter-term jobs. This reality began reflecting on resumes and reshuffled the deck for what a “good” resume looks like. Job hopping in many instances was suddenly the norm.

That said, she explained, when walking into a job interview with a job-hopping resume of your own, you still must have your story straight. “If you have a lot of shorter-term jobs on your resume, you need to have good story for the hiring manager about why you’ve hopped around.” In other words, you found a job and learned all you could learn there, and perhaps managed to find a new position in that company where you added further to your skillset. Afterward, however, the company had no place for you to go or nothing else for you to do, and you decided to move on, and so on.

“If you have a story you can tell me as a hiring manager, that’s much better. If I have to ask about job hopping and no good reason is given—’Oh, well I just got bored and moved on’—then I am a lot less likely to hire you. So you can job hop,” she adds, “but you have to have a good reason.”

Redefining Entry Level

It’s not just job seekers who need to adjust to the new market environment, however. Companies, too, must change their thinking if they hope to attract millennials and keep them on board beyond a cursory five-year stint. Says Quast, “Employers have to look at their entry-level positions and have training programs in place that allow for greater employee mobility. There must be career paths in place to keep millennials engaged and to keep them learning new things. ‘Entry level’ was once something that you did for a number of years without complaining. In this new norm, however, employees will complain and they will leave for greener pastures.”

The notion of job hopping itself stands a fair chance of becoming institutionalized as simply the way careers are made. The job hopping job seekers of today are the executives and hiring managers of tomorrow. And who knows? In some distant future, the question might not be: “Why did you have so many jobs?” but rather, “Nice silver watch—couldn’t you get a job anywhere else?”