Mark Meadors had enough of his COVID-19 work life.
Since late last year, the 31-year-old was putting in more than 70 hours a week at four jobs – a full-time position in human resources for a construction company and part-time gigs at a grocery store, boat dealership and in the Air Force Reserve.
Meadors, who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, took the part-time jobs because he felt his HR position wasn’t stable as the pandemic buffeted the construction industry.
The grind left him exhausted and with little time to spend with his wife and five kids. As job openings soared, Meadors quit the HR, grocery store and boat dealer positions to take a more secure human resources job at a university. He continues his duties in the Air Force Reserve.
“It was a relief,” says Meadors, who left the Air Force in 2019. “I’ve got to attend to the needs of my family, and I’ve got to be there for them.”
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The easing pandemic and reopening economy set off an unprecedented reshuffling of the U.S. workforce. Americans are quitting jobs in record numbers, typically to take another position.
They’re on the move chiefly to make the most of a historic burst of job openings, often at higher wages, according to a survey by Joblist for USA TODAY. Many change jobs because they’re burned out after working so hard during the pandemic or finally beginning job searches they put off during the health crisis, according to results of the survey by Joblist, which provides online tools to job seekers.
Many make the leap to an industry less vulnerable to the vagaries of the economy or more aligned with their dreams and family-focused lifestyles, according to the Joblist survey and other data.
Many white-collar employees prefer to work from home permanently after doing so during the pandemic, a dynamic that’s likely to spark another job switching frenzy this fall as some businesses require employees to return to the office, experts say.
After hunkering down at their jobs because of the shaky economy, “people are starting to come back and apply” for new positions, says Karin Kimbrough, chief economist for LinkedIn. The trend, she says, signifies “a very healthy labor market” and should lead to a more productive economy “that matches the right person with the right job.”
Initially, the shift could hurt productivity, or output per worker, as employees learn their new positions, says Jim McCoy, senior vice president of talent solutions for ManpowerGroup, a large staffing firm.
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For some companies, the turnover could help mitigate a dire shortage of workers resulting partly from Americans choosing to stay on generous unemployment benefits or caring for children learning from home while schools are closed. For other firms, the churn in the labor market makes it harder to hold on to staffers.
4 million say, ‘I quit’
A record 4 million workers quit jobs in May, Labor Department figures show. The number fell to 3.6 million in June, but that’s still a historically elevated figure. Last month, the number of people voluntarily leaving jobs increased by a record 164,000, according to the June jobs report
The main driver? Opportunity.
“It’s a sign of how strong the demand for workers is,” says Nick Bunker, chief economist of job posting site Indeed.
About 35% of workers switched jobs over the past year, according to the Joblist/USA TODAY survey of 1,011 workers. Workers typically quit a job to take another, but some may leave to start their own businesses, freelance or take a few months off, says Julia Pollak, chief economist of ZipRecruiter, the online jobs marketplace.
About 63% of those planning to change jobs in the next six months cite the abundance of openings, many at higher pay, amid a resurgent economy set to produce the fastest growth in decades, the Joblist survey shows.
There were a record 9.2 million openings in May, Labor Department figures show. In June, average wages surged 7.1% annually in leisure and hospitality, which includes restaurants and hotels, and 6.2% in retail.
An additional 39.6% of workers say they put off their job searches during the pandemic but feel comfortable enough to start hunting, according to the survey. And 32.8% say they’re fried from working so hard during the crisis and need a change.
Many health care, restaurant, retail and delivery workers logged lots of overtime. White-collar employees often were at their computers at all hours of the day and night, in some cases to pick up the slack for laid-off colleagues.
“People are burned out,” Kimbrough says. After workers took refuge in their jobs for many months, “there’s lots of pent-up demand for switching.”
Restaurants, hotels, shops and factories, all of which have struggled to find workers, offer signing bonuses and higher pay, McCoy says, prompting many workers to hop from one job to another.
Juggling jobs ‘wasn’t sustainable’
Meadors, who worked in the meat department at the grocery store and in customer service for the boat dealership, along with the HR and Army Reserve gigs, says juggling the four jobs “wasn’t sustainable.”
“I didn’t want that,” says Meadors, who also worked in human resources while he served in the Air Force. “I felt that I needed to do it because of uncertainty.”
He occasionally applied for human resources jobs this year but didn’t get any nibbles. After applying again in the spring, he suddenly found himself juggling six or seven interviews.
“Things started to build,” he says. Though the pay at the university is about the same as his HR job in construction, the benefits and total compensation are higher, he says.
Many workers are leaving their chosen field. About 30% of those surveyed by Joblist who changed jobs also switched industries the past year. And 55.8% of the job changes recorded by LinkedIn in April were from one industry to another. Sectors that lost jobs during the pandemic – restaurants, hotels, retail and energy – generally saw employees bolt. Those that have thrived – health care, software, finance and real estate – had relatively few workers leave, LinkedIn data shows.
Many workers in recreation and travel jumped to new careers in software and information technology, consumer goods, health care and finance, Kimbrough says.
The health crisis has led many Americans to pursue their passions.
“The pandemic was a moment of forced reflection,” Kimbrough says, during which many people asked themselves, “What would I rather be doing?”
‘I got my foot in the door’
After graduating from college in May 2020, Shane Eyermann of St. Louis couldn’t find a job in his preferred field of medical sales – or any kind of sales – so he took a position handling insurance claims for a freight company. “It was repetitive,” he says.
This year, he started seeing more postings for sales jobs and landed one as a sales representative for a company that makes synthetic colors for the food and paint industries. The salary is $15,000 higher than his previous job, allowing him to move out of his parents’ house.
“I’m excited,” he says. “I got my foot in the door.”
For companies, the musical chairs in the labor market amount to a mixed bag.
Felix Media Solutions, which installs videoconferencing systems in company offices, has several job openings for technicians and project managers, and at least one-third of applicants are leaving restaurant or hotel jobs, CEO Lionel Felix says.
“We’re seeing them in droves,” says the head of the Austin, Texas-based company with 25 employees. “I have never seen this before. They’re saying, ‘I want to do something completely different, and I want to learn a skill and a trade.’”
Felix says restaurant and hotel workers, particularly managers, are ideal candidates because they’ve dealt with multiple tasks under fire, and “I know they show up on time. … It’s all about transferable skills.”
Aaron VanderGalien, CEO of Deksia, a marketing company, says four of his 10 interns declined entry-level job offers to take higher-paying positions at rival firms. Normally, all his interns accept his job offers, he says. A couple of veteran employees also left the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based company for higher salaries elsewhere, though one returned.
VanderGalien wrestles with how to compete with other offers, which are typically 10% to 20% higher than what he pays, so he can hold onto his employees. He offers sign-on bonuses and one-time bonuses to workers who stay on a certain period of time. He’s hesitant to permanently raise salaries.
“It will cripple our company,” he says, especially if strong inflation slows as expected, along with the rates he can charge clients. “I can’t reduce my wage later.”
Ari Brown, owner of an Austin-based pediatric practice with 10 employees, lost two medical assistants.
“It has been virtually impossible to replace them,” he wrote in an email. “I think people are fatigued of working in the medical field, especially for the typical salaries that are paid to medical assistants, with a lack of flexibility/remote work opportunities.”
Although job switching has cooled a bit, Kimbrough of LinkedIn expects another big wave this fall as companies require workers to come back to the office.
Twenty percent of employees surveyed by ZipRecruiter this month say they’ll search for work that can be done from home. Most U.S. businesses want their employees back in the office at least some of the time after the pandemic fades.
McCoy says some IT and corporate workers are departing for telework jobs, often moving to lower-cost states.
“I think there’s more to come,” Kimbrough says.