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Don't dismiss discontent

March 10, 2004

By Diane Dierking

The downturn that the chemical industry is only now shaking has spurred massive downsizing at chemical plants; that much we all know. Despite the legions of Americans who are out of work, engineers, even those in seemingly safe positions, are pursuing greener pastures.

Those pastures aren't necessarily green with money, either. In "Love 'Em or Lose 'Em; Getting Good People to Stay," a book by Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans, topping the list of reasons why most employees say they are happy with their jobs are opportunities for career growth and the availability of challenging and meaningful work. Intangible, feel-good items, such as recognition and flexibility, round out the top 10 items contributing to job satisfaction. Kaye and Jordan-Evans place responsibility for providing these important, yet intangible items firmly in the hands of direct managers and supervisors.

Bad management seems to be at the heart of workplace discontent in the chemical industry. Whether it's lack of recognition for either a job well done or having to work extra hours, or the inability to provide either challenging tasks or the proper resources to their employees, managers are taking the brunt of the blame. I'm sure some of them have their hands tied, but many seem to be in denial that a problem even exists.

Meanwhile, Monster.com indicates that its number of registered users has increased 38% in the past year. As the economy improves and more jobs become available, dissatisfied workers are likely to start polishing their resumes, if they haven't already.

Among the engineers I know who are not polishing their resumes, there are a plethora of not-so-good reasons they are staying in their current jobs. They don't want to lose the vacation they have earned, or their current employer is close to home. Those who are more than 40 years old express concern about job changes affecting their pension benefits and worry they won't be able to find new jobs because of age discrimination. Many, however, admit they just don't have the time and energy to look for new positions. When I decided to leave my former employer, I spent at least 10 hours a week searching the Web for a new job; fortunately, my search only lasted six weeks.

Of those engineers I know who have polished their resumes, posted them on the job search sites, and have been successful in finding other employers, there are many reasons they made the move. I can think of more than a handful of engineers who have left the Chicago area in search of a warmer climate and lower cost of living. Then, there are those who have earned their MBAs and want to use their skills. Unfortunately, companies who underwrite the tuition, and quite rightly should expect some benefit from their investment, all too often don't provide career advancement opportunities for those employees to use their newly acquired skills. So, employees are forced to look for the opportunities elsewhere. Another factor that drives people away is the loss of faith in company leadership. Who can blame them when one unsuccessful reorganization is followed by another? Why can't companies get it right?

Not so long ago, I was biding my time under a different set of fluorescent lights, wondering whether there was a greener pasture out there for me. I decided from the outset that I would leave my position only for the right job.

One of the reasons I went in search of not only a new job, but a new career, was I simply wasn't enjoying myself. Everyone needs work/life balance. And they want to be challenged while doing something they enjoy in an environment that is -- dare I say it -- fun. Think about it, you spend around a third of your waking hours at work -- why shouldn't you enjoy yourself? Kaye and Jordan-Evans say fun energizes, motivates and helps retain employees.

Recruiting experts caution against taking the first opportunity that comes along when looking for a new job (assuming one can afford to do so). Kaye and Jordan-Evans explain hiring the right person for the right role increases the odds of keeping that person engaged in that role.

I'm sure a lot of employers figure they can replace those who leave with lower-paid personnel. Yet, a quick search on the Internet shows companies put the cost of replacing an employee anywhere between one-and-a half to three times the departing employee's annual salary. This does not take into account the knowledge that leaves with the employee, potential customers that follow the employee, or the effect it has on the morale of former co-workers.

It seems safe to say that as the economy recovers, more and more engineers will find themselves looking for that greener pasture. Managers had better mend their ways before that happens. And the time to start is now.

Diane Dierking is senior editor of Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail her at [email protected].

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