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The Economist: Many Americans not too happy with their jobs

By By Ray Perryman
July 13, 2013 at 2:13 a.m.


How happy are you with your job? For a disconcerting majority of Americans, the answer is something like "not very.'"

Clearly, there is an enormous human cost involved because most people spend a majority of their waking hours during the week at work. Moreover, the problem goes far beyond individuals, negatively affecting corporations, customers and society as a whole.

For a number of years, Gallup Inc. has surveyed workers to determine their level of satisfaction with various aspects of their jobs. The firm also looks at worker engagement and whether or not employees are actively engaged, disengaged or even actively disengaged.

These studies are very thought provoking and well worth a read. The latest one indicates that poor managers are costing the U.S. economy $450-$500 billion each year due to the negative effects they have on employees and their levels of engagement.

It's certainly not a revelation that people who are happy with their work will do a better job with it. Employees who are interested in what they're doing and feel that they are an integral part of the company will, of course, be more creative, helpful to customers, mindful of the bottom line, loyal and then some.

Career changes are another signal that the right fit can be hard to find. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average person born in the latter years of the baby boom (1957 to 1964) held 11.3 jobs from age 18 to age 46.

Nearly half of these jobs were held from ages 18 to 24, which makes sense given the learning curve associated with finding and keeping a quality job as well as factors such as part-time work during college. The other half, however, may tell a different story. While some trading up for more desirable positions is to be expected, it's still a fairly large number.

Sometimes, the issue involves training for a particular career only to figure out that it's not exactly as envisioned. The more we can do to equip young people to make good decisions, the better. Kids at age 16 or 17 are hard pressed to understand the implications of their choices regarding whether to seek higher education, where to go to do so, how to best pay for it, what to major in and so on.

Many have little real idea of what it's like to work within various fields and could benefit from increased access to relevant information.

One of the best attempts to get at this is the Occupational Outlook Handbook maintained by BLS and available free online, which includes a wealth of summary-level information for hundreds of occupations, including typical pay, work environment, education requirements, job outlook and more.

Public schools' career classes also try to help students figure out what they might want to do. However, more could certainly be done.

In many cases, dissatisfaction stems from the working environment rather than the career path, such as in cases where there are conflicts with managers or co-workers.

Management decisions are among the most important a firm can make, but they are sometimes centered more on job performance or seniority than they are on the ability to actually be a good manager. There are ways around this problem, both in terms of selecting the right people and through management training.

Hard economic times make things worse for employees by reducing available options. When jobs are plentiful, a good fit is more likely. Moreover, in the case of a bad fit, changing positions is easier.

As the U.S. job market continues to strengthen, we can hope that people can move from positions where they are unhappy into places where they can be more satisfied.

Keeping employees happy is about far more than just warm and fuzzy feelings. People who feel invested in their work and satisfied with it simply make better employees. Better employees enhance customer service, improve the pace of innovation and are more productive, which is good for business and good for the economy.

M. Ray Perryman is president and chief executive officer of The Perryman Group (perrymangroup.com). He also serves as institute distinguished professor of economic theory and method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.

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