The recession and its accompanying reorganizations, layoffs and corporate turns to outsourcing have been corrosive to IT employee job satisfaction.
And that job dissatisfaction is increasing concerns among many employment experts that key employees may leave current jobs as soon as they get what they perceive is a better offer.
A mid-2009 job satisfaction survey by the Corporate Executive Board, a Washington-based advisory firm that counts many Fortune 500 firms among its clients, found that the number of dissatisfied workers continues to increase. The firm surveys 150,000 workers each quarter, asking a battery of behavioral questions about their jobs. About 10,000 of the those surveyed work in IT jobs, board officials said.
The CEB's latest survey found that the willingness of IT employees to "exert high levels of discretionary effort" -- put in extra hours to solve a problem, make suggestions for improving processes, and generally seek to play a key role in an organization -- has plummeted to its lowest levels since the survey was launched 10 years ago.
In 2007, about 12% of the IT employees fit in category of "highly engaged" workers, but that has since fallen to 4%.
"These are literally the most critical employees," said Jaime Capella, a managing director in CEB's information technology practice. Moreover, such critical workers are 2.5 times more likely than the average employee to be looking for new opportunities.
"They are likely to be the first ones to leave your company as soon as they can," Capella said.
Similarly, the Conference Board Inc., a non-profit research group, said Tuesday that occupants of 45% of 5,000 U.S. households it surveyed last year were satisfied with their jobs, down from 61% in 1987, the first year the survey was conducted. The Conference Board said that the job issues found in its survey, which cover all occupations, could cause multiple workplace ills, including declines in employee engagement, productivity and retention.
"When the economy starts to head in the right direction, the employees are going to vote with their feet," said Mike Hagan, a vice president of infrastructure at a health insurance firm he asked not to be identified. He is also a co-author of Achieving IT Service Quality: The Opposite of Luck (Synergy Books, Nov. 2009).
Hagan said there is a lot of pent-up dissatisfaction in the IT workplace, as well as a backlog of people who normally would have moved to a different job in a stable economy. The recession has resulted in "unnaturally low attrition levels," he said.
To keep key employees, Hagan said that IT managers must find ways to engage employees, and offer them a "line of sight to the corporate vision." It's important that IT managers create jobs that have a purpose, he added.
"The folks at Apple Computer, I'm guessing right now, are feeling very purposeful at work," said Hagen, and thus are unlikly to be looking elsewhere. (See: Apple sets sales records 'as if recession never happened.'). Employees elsewhere "are going to be shopping for [such] purposefulness," he said.
And the opportunity getting a new job may be improving. Job board Dice Inc. is beginning to see some early indications of increased IT hiring.
For instance, in the New York area, there are about 6,000 IT jobs posted; a year ago at this point there were 5,600, said Thomas M. Silver, a senior vice president at Dice. The company has posted about 3,000 jobs in Silicon Valley, up from 2,700 last year, he added.
Overall, Dice had nearly 50,000 jobs listed today, which Silver expects will grow soon to 55,000 based on trends.
A Dice survey of 360 people in August found that over a third were planning to change jobs once the job market improves. Tech workers are under constant pressure to keep up and want to be in jobs where they can learn and grow, he said.
To keep employees, Capella said they are advising managers to take performance reviews very seriously, work on motivating teams and communicating more consistently and openly, as well as give employees more of a say in the jobs they want. If employees don't believe that companies are being honest, they are more likely to become disaffected, he said.
If managers are frank with their employees they can "accumulate enough good will" to offset the negative impacts, said Capella.
Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies; data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter @DCgov, send e-mail at email@example.com or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed .