By Jon Bonné Lifestyle editor
msnbc.com

Signs of a recovery may still be a ways off, and jobs in some industries — like manufacturing — may be gone for good. Yet those who are currently working are beginning to eye the job listings again, according to several recent surveys. Employers should pay close attention, because employees’ commitment to the company, while it has improved in the past two years, won’t necessarily keep them from leaving.

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Nearly two-thirds of employees don’t feel loyal to their jobs, according to a report released this week by Walker Information. That comprises workers who are high-risk — not committed and not planning to stay — as well as those defined as trapped: not committed but planning to stay anyway, often because of an inflated salary.

“They’re not necessarily feeling like part of the family,” says Marc Drizin, a Walker vice president who specializes in employee commitment, “but they’re either fearful they don’t have the skills to find another job or … they believe what they’re told: that they should be thankful to have a job.”

The loyalty numbers have improved since 2001, when ethical scandals emerged at Enron and other companies. But they currently sit close to 1999 levels, when unemployment was pushed down near 4 percent and workers had far more power to negotiate. In good times or in bad, it would seem, many workers have a toe across the doorjamb.

The most loyal are in the top ranks of management, but that drops steadily across lower rungs of the company ladder. Just 24 percent of “individual contributors” — rank-and-file workers who are often most likely to deal with customers — said they were truly loyal to their employers, according to Walker.

They’re not alone. More than a third of middle managers are already seeking another job and another 10 percent will start their hunt when the job market is better, according to July research from Accenture.

Those in the Accenture survey weren’t optimistic on the timing of a recovery — most predict another year or longer — but over three-quarters of employees recently polled by the Society of Human Resource Management saw recovery within a year. And over 80 percent said they were likely to look for a new job as the market improved.

While predictions of a job-market recovery have been dampened and some economists believe jobs that are gone will stay gone, their concerns don’t necessarily reflect plans of those currently employed workers who hope to switch jobs.

Planning for change
That potential for job turnovers is significant enough to raise flags among many human-resource experts. While a sluggish economy prevented many employees from eyeing the door, the trend can reverse quickly as valuable employees get restless and are courted by competitors.

Some turnover is inevitable, of course. But consultants have begun to urge companies to re-evaluate how they keep people from leaving. “The first thing companies need to do is realize that people are going to leave,” says Ellen Hertz, a partner with Accenture’s human performance consulting practice. “At the same time, I think there is an opportunity for organizations to really begin a dialogue with their employees about what is most important.”

Pay and benefits continue to top lists of what employees seek in their jobs, but they may not be deciding factors in keeping the best employees. Money may attract new workers, but it loses its impact over time. Lousy work assignments, or a sense that a company doesn’t value its staff, can negate the advantages of better salaries. At the same time, many compensation-based perks made popular in the 1990s — stock options, for example — have been trimmed back. “Given all that, there is a greater inclination to look elsewhere,” says Hertz.

‘Never under the rug'
What can play a major factor are some less obvious benefits — such as tuition reimbursement or special accommodations on employees’ work schedules.

The key, Drizin suggests, is to be open about which perks people get. There should be no problem defending why a female staffer gets to telecommute during maternity leave, or why salaries vary — so long as the message to employees is that hard work is rewarded and loyalty is a two-way street. But trying to hide these discrepancies can cause trouble. Just over 40 percent of those in the Walker survey believe company policies are implemented fairly.

“It’s not wrong to treat unequal people unequally,” he says. “The problem is that companies try to hide it, and they think that if we don’t talk about it … we can kind of keep it under the rug. Well, it’s never under the rug.”

At the same time, industries function in different ways and what may lure a programmer to a new job might not hold the same sway with a nurse. Perks must be tailored to the job.

And employees’ willingness to stay doesn’t mirror their loyalty, the Walker data shows. Though some industries (teaching) attract truly loyal employees and others (retail trade) draw employees who are neither loyal nor likely to stay, many are more complicated to parse. Government employees often stay the longest at their jobs but have little commitment to their workplace. Yet workers in high-tech, finance and nursing often change jobs quickly but are highly dedicated to their work while they’re doing it.

At the same time, companies need to be wary of trapped employees. Neither an overinflated salary nor fear of the job market seem to drive corporate loyalty, and many of those workers are simply hogging a spot that could be filled by more motivated, often less costly employees.

“Just because people are staying longer doesn’t mean they’re loyal,” Drizin says. “Just because they’re leaving sooner doesn’t mean … you’re not getting everything they can possibly give.”

Prepping for the new
Still, any new activity in the job market forces both sides of the employment equation to weigh their options. Companies in some sectors — such as utilities and transportation, both of which have over 40 percent of their employees trapped, according to Walker — can search for new blood. Workers who feel stuck may have more incentive to start looking.

That churn inevitably costs businesses, but if employees plan to job-hunt, some of those costs become inevitable. As such, experts are telling firms it’s time to lock in commitments from top employees. Accenture’s Hertz suggests companies identify their best performers and reach out to them now to arrange a package that will keep them from bolting — not only money, but more training and quality-of-life benefits. They may eventually leave anyway, Drizin argues, but it can delay the inevitable and have them singing the company’s praises even after they’ve moved on.

It may also be time to lure new ones. As for those workers starting to sift the market, companies may want to start courting their best hiring prospects even if positions aren’t yet open, Hertz says: “If the talent’s too good to pass up, go get them now.” That not only cuts off the competition, but also signals that a company sees recovery on the way.

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