How long is too long to stay at your job?
With the unemployment rate still hovering at 7.3 percent, those of us who are fortunate enough to have jobs tend to see it as a victory. In fact, according to a joint survey conducted by LearnVest and Chase Blueprint™, 6 in 10 respondents felt lucky to be working in this economy.
That said, just because you have a gig doesn't mean that you should stay in it forever. Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees today average 4.6 years at any given job. That's a far cry from the days of putting in your time and retiring from a company that you joined fresh out of college.
But while moving around too much can give hiring managers potential pause, staying at one place of employment for too long can also raise a red flag on your résumé. Translation: Employers sometimes equate job longevity with laziness, lack of flexibility or worse — fear of change. Part of being mindful about your financial progress is reassessing your earning potential, which is hard to do when you're stuck on one predetermined salary track.
So when is the best time to leave a steady gig? We asked three long-term job holders to grant us a glimpse at their employment history — and then asked Colleen Georges, a career coach and co-author of 101 Great Ways to Enhance Your Career, for her expert input on how much they've truly sacrificed in earning potential … and whether it's finally time for them to move on.
The tried-and-true tech gig
Paul Diaz, 36, IT Project Manager
Years at his job: 14
When I first started as a contractor at my company in 2000, I was expecting to just work a one- to two-year gig before jumping from company to company, which was typical of the IT field then. But they liked me, so I was offered a permanent job after just one year. At the time, this was great news — one of the biggest things that I liked about the company (aside from having a nice salary fresh out of college) was the fact that they hadn't had a single layoff in years, which made me feel very secure.
Getting a job at such a large company also gave me the added bonus of being able to bounce around internally. I started off taking support calls for the company's help desk. Today, I'm a project manager for several multimillion dollar projects, managing up to 50 contractors. Of course, times have changed a bit and we've gone through many rounds of layoffs since I started. The scariest thing is that my wife works in the same department, so we literally have all our eggs in one basket — and run the risk of us both being laid off.
Yes, I sometimes feel like I've been here too long. And now that I have my Masters, I could probably make at least $20,000 more, with who knows how much in possible raises elsewhere. But I like my work and my company. Every five years, I also get a few more vacation days, and there's a lot of flexibility when it comes to summer hours and the ability to work from home — which was especially helpful when my first child was born.
Our career expert weighs in: Paul has found a company that has allowed him to progress in titles, compensation and responsibilities. For him, remaining at the same place for 14 years hasn't been stagnant — rather, it has facilitated continuous growth. But since his company has seen many layoffs, and he and his wife both work in the same department, exploring new opportunities may not be a bad idea. A new position at another company could help allay Paul's fear of getting laid off simultaneously.
The other challenge is that Paul is now 36, and there's a host of research indicating that well over 50 percent of professionals' lifetime earning growth occurs during the first 10 years of a career. If Paul does decide to stay at his current company, he certainly holds the credentials now to start a technology consulting business on the side to make up for this loss in earnings — and provide some additional financial resources for his family.
The time cap on staying put: Paul is just four years shy of his forties, when salaries often hit their plateau, making it much more challenging to catch up financially. If he is contemplating a move, now is likely the time to make it, providing that he finds a role with monetary opportunities and personal benefits that are at least equal to those afforded at his current company.
The low-paying (but beloved) nonprofit job
Tracy Lavelle, 28, YMCA Membership Director
Years at her job: 6
I graduated from college in 2007 with a degree in sports management — and just a few months later, I started working at the YMCA. Most days I love my job, especially interacting with members. After two years I became eligible for retirement, and my vacation days have also increased from a mere five to a respectable 15.
I feel as though I have job security — I have a good gig when others have none — but there are definitely times when I think that I should move on. It can be difficult to do the same things for six years in a row, so I keep requesting new responsibilities and tasks to combat boredom.
I also think that the YMCA takes me for granted as an employee, seeing as I put in extra hours and effort for nothing in return. And there's the fact that I've missed out on monetary compensation. Over the years my salary has increased by $11,000 through a combination of raises and salary readjustments. But if I worked at a for-profit, I would most likely be making $15,000 to $20,000 more. But I can't see myself leaving the nonprofit world just yet.
Our career expert weighs in: We often carry with us a lot of shoulds about jobs and careers. "I should keep trying to move up the ladder." "I should seek more money." "I should leave to get experience with another organization."
I definitely believe that when you feel unhappy in a position, dissatisfied with the company you work for, or undercompensated in a role, you need to listen to these shoulds in your mind. However, if you love your job and the work environment, as Tracy indicates that she does, staying can sometimes makes sense. So many people feel unhappy at work, and so few can say that they love their jobs — that's a luxury to hold onto.
That said, it's important for Tracy to keep requesting new responsibilities — it's a résumé builder that will show she has continued to grow and evolve in her role. Tracy is already six years into the most critical wage-growth period of her career, and since she has a passion for nonprofit work, perhaps she could explore higher-level management opportunities at other nonprofits. She could also investigate noncorporate arenas, such as higher education or sports and recreation management jobs, which may have better salaries and benefits. This would allow her to continue doing work that makes a difference — and increase her earning power.
The time cap on staying put: Your twenties are a key time for saving. If she's not putting enough into retirement savings now, Tracy will need to double her efforts in her thirties to reach the same rate of return by retirement. Furthermore, there's a point at which staying too long at one job — around eight to 10 years — can raise questions about how a professional will adapt to a new environment. With six years already under her belt, Tracy probably shouldn't wait more than two years to make a career move if she wants to diversify her experience — and make a more sizable financial contribution to her future.
The comfortable corporate gig
Ruth Chin, 36, business analyst
Years at her job: 13
I started out as a summer temp at my company when I was in college. Since then, I've had a bunch of different positions and titles. My company has also paid for continuing-education courses that have helped my career evolve; about five years ago, I went back to school for a certificate in business analysis, which turned out to be one of my best career decisions.
The skills that I've gained, and the historical knowledge that I have about the company, make me very valuable. In fact, I've survived several rounds of layoffs. But I do wonder what I'm missing out on by not moving from company to company. Are there different or better ways of doing things? Am I limiting myself by not being exposed to other corporate cultures?
Yet what I have now is so good that it's going to take a lot for me to leave. I like the people I work with, and I have lots of opportunities to learn new skills. I also now make more than double the salary I had when I first started. The company also matches contributions to my 401(k), offers fantastic health-care benefits, and it still has a fully-funded pension plan, which is rare these days! Moreover, I'm eligible for a yearly bonus, and as I rise through the ranks, the percentage of my salary that I'm eligible to receive as a bonus gets larger.
I probably could make more money as a consultant, but I don't want that lifestyle. I live within a reasonable distance to my job, and I like that I don't have to fly in planes and live in hotels. Plus, I don't have the ambition to be a senior executive — I don't want to miss out on life for the sake of climbing the corporate ladder. Maybe my perspective is too myopic, but I'm happy.
Our career expert weighs in: Ruth seems to have found amazing perks with her company — both from a monetary and personal perspective. How many people can say that they've doubled their salary in just over 10 years, and receive annual bonuses during this economic downturn? Plus, her employer has paid for her continuous education and provided excellent health, pension, and vacation benefits. It sounds like Ruth has hit the jackpot all around.
If the negatives of her position ever begin to outweigh the positives, it will be time to look elsewhere. But since Ruth still feels good about where she is and what she's doing, staying put for now may be a good choice.
In the meantime, to expand her experience and skills and diversify her résumé, Ruth could consider starting a consulting practice on the side, taking on just one small project at a time that wouldn't overwhelm her current lifestyle. Plus, it would give her experience with a variety of other companies, which will show a broader scope of experience to future hiring managers.
The time cap on staying put: At 36, Ruth is still at a prime hiring age. However, as professionals edge past 45, it can become more challenging to secure new opportunities — and it becomes advisable to shave off titles and education showing one's age. If Ruth plans to look for new opportunities, she should consider doing so in the next two to five years.
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