Will 2021 Be a Year of Massive Job Turnover?

Author(s): Jennifer Rozon

By Jennifer Rozon

When the pandemic hit, there was a lot of job uncertainty in the market. Now, as we are hopefully edging ourselves closer to the end of the pandemic and toward an endemic (steady) state, I wanted to know – will people make radical changes once the pandemic ends? Is there pent-up turnover in the market? Will folks quit their jobs to travel the world? Start their own businesses? Or has the pandemic made everyone realize just how much they love their current jobs?

To answer these questions, we conducted a research study in March and April 2021. I was seeing articles indicating we were in for massive job turnover this year and I wanted some data to validate these hunches! Reflecting on the past 14 months, a lot of people said they hunkered down in 2020 and didn’t want the uncertainty that comes with a new job in a year that was already so unpredictable. A lot of the turnover that would have naturally occurred in 2020 simply didn’t, meaning there could be a backlog of people who are ready for a change in 2021.

We collected data from nearly 1,000 business professionals, of which 27% were individual contributors, 29% management, and 44% senior leaders. Geographically, 83% of respondents were from North America, with the balance spread across the rest of the world. We had fairly good representation across industries, with no single industry making up more than 13% of the total.

The first thing we wanted to understand from respondents was whether or not the pandemic impacted their current desire to make a job or career change.

  • Over half of respondents indicated the pandemic impacted their desire to change jobs or careers, with a fairly even split between increased (47%) and decreased (53%) likelihood of making a change.
  • This validated our assumption that job change desires have been impacted by the pandemic and could signal talent trends to come post-pandemic. Respondents are more likely to consider a new job once the pandemic ends than they are today. Those more likely to make a change increases by 11 percentage points post-pandemic and those less likely decreases by 18 percentage points.

The next thing we wanted to understand was whether or not folks were planning to make radical changes to their jobs post-pandemic. While the good news is that the majority of folks plan to stay in their current roles after the pandemic, a surprisingly high 24% say they plan to make a radical change and a further 13% are unsure at the moment.

Of those looking to make a radical change, the highest group, 35%, will look for a new job opportunity outside of their industry. This validates the sentiment that the pandemic has caused many folks to rethink their skill sets. Remote work is likely also playing a role here. I’ve seen statistics stating nearly half of people currently working remotely say if their current company doesn’t continue to offer remote-work options long term, they’ll look for a job at a company that does. This could explain a good portion of both the largest group and the second-largest group – 28% of folks looking to find a new job within their industry but outside of their organization. This aligns with the consistent theme we see in client engagement surveys and exit survey data: concerns about career development impact both engagement and turnover.

The third most popular action of those planning radical job changes post-pandemic is to do so within their current organizations (highlighted in yellow in the graph below). This is a huge opportunity for employers, which I will cover later on. Looking at the next category, 12% of respondents stated that they will quit their jobs to start their own businesses. On the surface this seems high, but it’s not all that surprising if you read the article published by the New York Times entitled “Welcome to the YOLO Economy,” which talks about how some folks are quitting stable jobs to start new businesses, expand their side hustles, or pursue other dreams. Others are balking at return-to-office mandates and threatening to quit unless they’re allowed to keep the flexibility they’ve grown used to over the past year.

The next two categories make up 8% and include folks looking to take time off or travel, and the final 1% indicated they are planning to go back to school.

Here are a few observations and insights from this data:

  • Organizations must seize this opportunity for retention by highlighting opportunities within the organization and implementing targeted initiatives. Consider conducting stay interviews and marketing internal career path opportunities.
  • Invest in an alumni network to lay the groundwork for boomerang employees.
  • Don’t be caught off guard. Talent acquisition remains the #1 priority for HR in 2021 (McLean & Company, 2021 HR Trends Report). There’s no shortage of jobs, and remote work has only increased the competition for talent.
  • The time is now to focus on programs and initiatives to build up a talent pipeline and retain current employees. Invest in your talent retention programs and effective talent acquisition.

We also wanted to understand future trends in relocation, and we found that 25% of respondents will be more willing to relocate post-pandemic, 22% less willing, and 53% indicated no change. Due to increased options for remote work and work-from-anywhere arrangements, many are more likely to be willing to relocate for a new job if it means warmer temperatures, cheaper housing, slower lifestyles, and/or being closer to family. An increase in willingness to relocate (or actual relocation) has led some industries to explore reducing salary premiums paid to those working in high-cost locations should employees move out of those areas.

Overall, this is a positive story for organizations that need to attract folks to more remote locations or, on the flip side, for those organizations with headquarters in a high-cost city that may now be able to attract a larger pool of talent from outside the city if those folks are only required to come into the office a couple of times per week. However, keep in mind that as your organization broadens its talent pool so too do other organizations that could be competing for the same talent or trying to headhunt your current talent. Maintaining flexibility in the workplace can be an impactful strategy for the organization if deployed well.

So, what can you do now?

  • Don’t wait until the pandemic is over to start paying attention to turnover. Gather data to pinpoint areas of opportunity through a Pandemic Engagement Pulse Check. Equip managers to engage in career conversations and conduct stay interviews to assess employees' intent to stay.
  • Seize the opportunity presented by 15% of those wanting to make a radical career change within their own organization by marketing internal career path opportunities.
  • More respondents are more likely to consider a new job once the pandemic ends than they are today. Focus on programs and initiatives to build up a talent pipeline and retain current employees.
  • Remote work is expanding both talent pools and competition for talent. Re-evaluate organizational employee value propositions and reassess which roles will be eligible for flexible work.

Overall, one thing is clear – the workforce has forever changed, and so has the way that we approach engagement, talent retention, and talent acquisition.

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