Survival Mode

Job-seekers are taking "good for now" positions, but is it good enough for those who hire them?
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the April 2003 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Unfortunately, the economic recovery expected last summer hasn't materialized yet. With bills mounting and few employment opportunities in sight, job-seekers are taking "survival" jobs for which they're overqualified. "Time is their enemy," says Bill Coleman, senior vice president of compensation for in Wellesley, Massachusetts. "Any job is better than nothing for these people."

These workers have one thing in common: They're waiting for the economy to improve so they can get a better job. Hiring survivalists is a big issue for entrepreneurs deluged with resumes from overqualified applicants."People are leaving large companies to go with small and midsized businesses," says Roger Herman, a workplace futurist in Greensboro, North Carolina, and co-author of Impending Crisis: Too Many Jobs, Too Few People (Oakhill Press). But how do you work with an employee who sees you as a port in the storm?

I Will Survive
Consider Tracy Yen, who was laid off last year from a large San Francisco public relations firm where she worked full time. Last summer, she accepted a 20-hour-a-week, entry-level PR coordinator position."Eighteen months ago, finding anyone entry-level who had experience was impossible," says her new employer, Marianne O'Connor, 41, founder and president of Sterling Communications Inc., a high-tech PR agency in Los Gatos, California, with annual sales of $6 million.

Still, there was trepidation in training someone down for the job, or as Yen puts it, "turning off" many of her skills. "It was like 'This is going to be hard because she's really good,'" O'Connor says.

of workers say they have "strong negative feelings" about their jobs.
SOURCE: Gang & Gang Inc. and Towers Perrin

Working with survivalists starts with finding out what they want. Is this person interested in using his or her best skills to add value to the company? If so, "the organization should get involved," says Marc Drizin, employee loyalty specialist for Walker Information, a research firm in Indianapolis. "If there are options for them in the organization or [if they] can acquire new skills that will make them more marketable, they'll stay longer and work harder."

O'Connor sees pros and cons in hiring survivalists. The 35-employee company gets overqualified people who bring new energy, but they will get bored unless they move up. It's a point O'Connor makes to overqualified applicants. "I say 'I'd love to consider you,'" she says. "'But you're going to move on, and I'm going to have a disruption in my employee and client bases.'"

Worries aside, entrepreneurs are finding out about these people's skills, Herman says, because these are people who can take a company to the next level. You may want to bring survivalists on with the understanding that they'll be with you temporarily. "You can let them create, then leave. Then you bring in employees who carry out what's been started," Herman says. "Take advantage of these people while they're out there."

Deciding whether to hire survivalists depends on what you want. "If you value the smartest people possible, hire them," O'Connor says, "but know you're going to have to replace them-unless you have a path for them in the company." O'Connor saw a path for Yen to grow into the work she wanted. And Yen felt comfortable telling her manager what she was thinking, and now she's full time. Above all, Yen says, survivalists want to know someone in the company is paying attention: "Know where they're at and where they're heading."

Bosses, Beware
Job-seekers aren't the only ones in survival mode-your long-time employees could be slipping into a survivalist mind-set, too. In a layoff environment, fear "inches up as [employees] watch TV and read the paper," Drizin says.

Employers, meanwhile, are being lulled into a dangerous sense of complacency. They tend to be so excited about controlling the job market that they've stopped developing their people. A study by International Survey Research released in 2002 revealed that only 67 percent of U.S. employees want to continue at their current positions, while a Conference Board survey of 5,000 workers found that only 51 percent were satisfied with their jobs.

When the economy improves, Herman predicts a mass exodus from positions that will only become harder to fill. "A lot of employers are going to be extinct," he says. "They won't have the people to get the job done."

Keep "re-recruiting" your people now to keep them, Herman says. Offer quarterly reviews, training and advancement opportunities, and interesting projects. Find out if employees are still getting what they came for. Talented employees who once saw your company as good "for now" may stay a lot longer.

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