While the Great Recession compelled many workers to stay put, largely gone are the days when employees signed on with a company and remained there until retirement.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American worker has stayed with a job about five years since the early 1980s. Average tenure has dropped to less than five years more recently.
Still, whether it’s better to stick it out with the same employer for the long haul or routinely beat the bushes for a new gig remains a point of debate. Some career consultants and employers call it a sign of initiative, while others view it as a red flag of instability.
“Job hopping has its positive side as well as its negative side,” said career coach Cheryl Palmer. “If done judiciously, it can work well on the employee’s behalf, but if overdone, it can be detrimental.”
Knowing the tipping point can make all the difference between a rewarding career and one of prolonged frustration.
Why stay or move on
Economists argue that data prove job tenure can be dictated more by the job market than by ambition. While robust hiring conditions can prompt more job-to-job movement, workers tend to stay longer when the job market is stagnant.
And some recruiters see value in applicants with a history of sticking to the same employer for more than a couple of years.
“As a general rule of thumb, jumping from job to job is deadly,” said executive recruiter and career counselor Bruce Hurwitz. “I cannot submit a candidate to one of my executive recruiting clients who has not shown stability. No employer is going to hire someone who is not going to provide a decent return on investment of their time and money training the person.”
But others claim job market dynamics have changed so radically that employer expectations and hiring behavior reflect those of the modern-day worker.
“As someone who does quite a lot of hiring, job hopping is not an issue to me,” said Vadim Bichutskiy of Innovizo, a technology consulting concern. “Globalization and modern digital technologies make it much easier to connect with others and find jobs. It's a two-way street: employers can replace you so fast your head will spin. The 21st-century economy is highly dynamic with a much faster rate of change than for our parents' generation.”
Some employers view frequent job changes as a sign of positive professional energy.
“I believe that job hopping is actually beneficial to employers,” said A.J. Saleem, academic director at Suprex Learning, a tutoring company. “A major influence for human behavior is motivation. When an employee switches jobs, he or she usually looks for something more, a higher position, more pay or simply a better environment.”
The particulars of specific industries can also prompt greater and more frequent job movement than others, added digital strategist Max Soni.
“Quite frankly, in the tech arena, most people work at any given job or company for three to four years on average. Typically, they’ll learn all they can and then move to the next big opportunity,” he said. “What’s important to me, when I speak to a prospective employee, is that each ‘hop’ resulted in some type of ascension.”
Where’s the tipping point?
With so many variables and viewpoints in play, it pays to ensure you project the correct impression if your career movement is particularly aggressive. Employers want to see a potential leader and contributor who is moving up with a purpose instead of someone who is simply bored and just moving around.
“I am completely turned off when I interview candidates who talk about the lack of opportunity to grow and work on exciting projects" said Etela Ivkovic, COO of DragonSearch, a digital marketing agency in New York. "This is a huge red flag for me suggesting that this person does not take things into their own hands.”
When discussing a highly mobile career path, never be defensive or apologetic, said Alex Twersky of the resume writing firm Resume Deli. Rather, frame your decisions in terms of an aggressive, proactive desire to further your career.
Additionally, avoid discussing every job you’ve ever held. As Twersky noted: “Speak at length to one or two of your many jobs held, and talk about them with enthusiasm. Do not try to cover every job you've held over the years, because that pitch will make you sound like a job hopper, rather than a person who has held many jobs."