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Career for life? For a lucky few, it still exists

Rattled by the recession and the economic hardships that resulted, more workers are now viewing career lifers with envy instead of disdain.
Image: Richard Keshishian
Richard Keshishian, 52, vice president of benefits for Prudential in Newark, N.J., has been an employee at the company for nearly three decades.John Makely /
/ Source: contributor

There was a time when people like Richard Keshishian, who has been an employee at Prudential for nearly three decades, had to whisper the number of years they spent with one company.

It just wasn’t hip to be with one company for more than a few years. Job-hopping in order to boost your career had become the norm.

“But the tide is changing,” said Keshishian, 52, vice president of benefits for the insurance company. “When I tell not only people within Prudential, but friends who have bounced around from job to job, they are impressed with being able to claim 20 years or more of service.”

Rattled by the recession and the economic hardships that resulted, more workers are now viewing career lifers with envy instead of disdain.

“It’s not old and outdated to plan on working for one company for years,” said Nancy Koehn, a historian at the Harvard Business School and author of “The Story of American Business.” “People want to find a place they can be safe and settled.”

And she’s not just talking about baby boomers. Younger workers, who have struggled to find jobs during the recession, are also looking for job stability, she said.

About 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are unemployed or out of the workforce, the highest share among this age group in three decades, according to a new Pew Research Center study.

A recent Fidelity Investments study also found that 41 percent of Gen Yers polled said that “the economic crisis has made their generation more conservative, which is reflected in not only their financial decisions, but also their employment choices.”

Fewer Gen Yers are willing to job hop, the survey found, with 25 percent wanting to stay with a current employer until retirement, compared to 14 percent who wanted that in 2008.

“Job changes are difficult — both for the company and the employees,” said executive recruiter and career management expert Kimberly Bishop. “I am seeing more candidates who want to stay with a firm long term.”

But many workers who thought they had found a job for life may have seen their dreams shattered by the economic downturn. More than 8.4 million jobs have been lost since the recession began as struggling companies drastically slashed their work forces.

Job security
Others have been luckier.

Chris Hannon, fulfillment manager/repair supervisor for Zippo, the lighter maker based in Bradford, Pa., has been with the firm for 36 years. She started the summer after she graduated from high school, continued to work for the company while she was in college, and never left.

“As long as I had this job, I had that security,” she said. “No matter what happened in my life I was always able to provide health insurance for my family, put food on the table, pay for my kids to go to Catholic school, and now I come here to put them through college.”

Hannon worked her way up, starting on the plant floor assembling lighters and eventually becoming a manager.

While the pay and benefits at Zippo have provided her and her family with peace of mind, she added: “I’ve loved what I’ve done here. I wouldn’t come here everyday if I hated it.”

Prudential’s Keshishian also has similar feelings about his work.

The company, he said, gave him support and opportunities to lead people and learn. “They’ve done well by me,” he added.

If you had asked Keshishian when he was younger if he’d be working for an insurance company until he retired, he probably would have said no.

Keshishian studied education in college and went on to teach sixth grade. That experience only lasted a year, and he decided to consider other careers.

A mutual friend who worked for Prudential lined up an interview, and he landed a job as a supervisor in pension administration. “I didn’t think I’d be going into it for the rest of my life,” he said. “I thought, ‘Let’s see how it goes.’ They had a competitive salary, and it didn’t seem like a risk at all.”

He is eligible to retire at age 55 but has no plans on leaving the company at that point. “I still like what I’m doing,” he added.

Staying put
Keshishian’s and Hannon’s experiences may sound like careers from bygone days, especially with the jobless rate near 10 percent, but long tenures with one employer are not as rare as many think.

Workers spent a median of 4.1 years with their current employer as of January 2008, up slightly from January 2006, according to the most recent data available from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story, said Ann Huff Stevens, a professor in the economics department at University of California, Davis.

The overall 4.1-year figure includes information for workers of all ages, she said, and typically younger workers take some time before they settle into one job.

When you look at older workers, tenure does goes up. For employees ages 55 to 64, median tenure was 9.9 years in January 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent survey. That’s almost four times the tenure for workers ages 25 to 34.

And tenure also fluctuates depending on the type of job and industry you’re in.

The median tenure among public employees was 7.2 years, compared to 3.2 years for private sector workers. Federal employees had the most years in at one employer with 9.9 years.

In the private sector, people who worked in manufacturing had the most years in at about six, and leisure and hospitality has the lowest median tenure at about two years.

Stevens also pointed out that the BLS data looks at the current job a worker has but does not include whether employees held jobs for longer periods at other points in their careers.

Stevens did her own research and looked at men who were around 60 years old. She found that tenure for them has changed little in the past 25 years, with the average holding jobs for about 20 years.

While she expects tenure to fall during this economic downturn because of the high unemployment rate, she said that many workers will end up working for a decade or more during their careers at one employer.

“There are reasons to think some employers will always see the value in keeping some workers long term,” she said. “We know it’s costly to adjust your workforce, laying off and training workers. I still think many employers value long-term employees.”

Long-term fulfillment
If you are longing for a job for life, the key is finding a firm you can trust that offers opportunities to advance and jobs you can be passionate about, say many career lifers.

Recruiter Bishop also advised doing some research on the companies you want to work for.

“In order for candidates to assess a company's perspective on long-term employment, I suggest they inquire about this during the interview,” she said. “They can ask about the average tenure of employees; what the company considers criteria for a successful employee; and what attributes or accomplishments the company values most in its employees.” 

For Edward Welburn, vice president for global design at General Motors, who’s spent 38 years at the automaker so far, it was all about Corvettes.

“I was always interested in cars,” he said about his decision to come to GM in 1972.

“There was no greater car company to think of as a young person looking to get into car design,” Welburn, 59, recalled. “GM designs inspired me most. The Corvettes, cars like the Impalas. My father had a Buick Rivera. I wanted to be part of it.”

He started out as a summer intern during his senior year at Howard University, and after graduating returned to GM’s design department and never left. He worked his way up from entry-level designer to chief designer of a studio, then group chief over several studies, then vice president of design.

“I never thought about working for another company,” said Welburn, who plans to stay at GM until he retires at age 65. “I thoroughly enjoy what I do.”