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Experts: Firms must engage workers now to keep them later

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The past few years have been a struggle for employers trying to keep their businesses running and their employees satisfied despite ever-tighter budgets.

A recent survey conducted for The Baltimore Sun by the research firm WorkplaceDynamics identified 75 area companies whose workers say their employers have succeeded. These workers say even in this tough climate their employers provide them with the career opportunities and communication that make them feel valued and part of the team.

That's a laudable accomplishment in a down economy. Once the economy improves, however, the nation's employers will face a new challenge: making sure they hold onto their best workers.

A stronger economy will open up opportunities for workers, who are now grateful to have any job. And from a recent survey by benefits consultant Mercer, it appears that many of them are poised to jump ship.

Mercer found that one-third of U.S. workers are seriously considering leaving their jobs. That's the highest percentage in at least a decade since the consultant began asking the question — and it comes when the national unemployment rate hovers at 9 percent.

Usually, Mercer says, only 1 in 5 workers — in good times and bad — seriously thinks about switching positions.

"Employers are wise to be worried," said Ann Boland, an executive recruiter in Catonsville.

At the same time, workplace experts emphasize that companies can take the initiative now to make sure that their best employees don't flee when the economy improves — and that this doesn't have to mean giving out raises.

"The No. 1 driver is being treated with fairness and respect," said Pete Foley, a principal with Mercer.

It's understandable that some employees entertain thoughts of leaving their jobs. These past few years have taken a toll on them.

Their colleagues have been laid off, and the survivors are expected to do more work to make up for the losses. Pay has been frozen or even cut. Employers have slashed benefits and shifted more of the cost onto employees.

"People are working harder and earning the same amount of money they were a couple of years ago," said Charles Purdy, senior editor at Monster.com.

A recent survey by CareerBuilder of nearly 4,400 workers found that close to half weren't satisfied with their work-life balance. Forty-six percent reported that more work had been dumped on them in the past six months, while almost as many said that their stress levels had grown in that time. And 8 out of 10 said that they sometimes or often felt burned out.

"This unhappiness could have people voting with their feet," said John Challenger, chief executive of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "And often it's not the mediocre people. It's [the] good people."

But according to Mercer, even happy employees are thinking about leaving.

Young workers, for instance, are the most satisfied but less likely to remain loyal to an employer. Mercer found that 40 percent of workers aged 25 to 34 give serious thought to quitting, while 44 percent of those under 24 think of bolting. Only senior managers are more willing to pull up stakes, with 56 percent saying they consider leaving.

This isn't news to employers, though. Fear that top talent will walk out the door once the economy picks up is keeping 35 percent of employers up at night, according to a CareerBuilder.com survey of more than 2,662 employers earlier this year.

All this puts companies in a tough spot: How can they entice good workers to remain when they're still operating with a bare-bones budget?

According to Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder's vice president of human resources, many firms are trying creative methods of engaging workers.

Some chief executives have begun taking a different employee out to lunch once a week, Haefner says. Even though the company can't afford pay raises, she says, it can give workers time with management to show they are heard and appreciated. Other firms are launching mentor or coaching programs.

Monster.com's Purdy suggests employers offer workers flexible schedules, an inexpensive perk that can reap benefits for companies. Studies show that productivity picks up when employees can set their own hours, he says.

And of course workers aren't oblivious to pay. Boland, the Catonsville recruiter, says once an employer's finances improve, the firm should consider a one-time salary adjustment for its best workers so they can catch up on raises they've missed.

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