Alex Thorpe graduated into the jobs market with seven offers in hand, but it wasn't until No. 8 that he found the right fit.
The Oregon State University grad toured Cambia Health Solutions with friends this spring, and executives there asked him to apply for the nonprofit's new "Hire 20" program.
Wanting to slow the turnover among top tech talent, Cambia -- the parent of Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon and other insurers -- recruited 20 new grads this spring and plugged them into teams solving its biggest information technology problems. Executives hope the strategy ensures the new hires are in it for the long haul, and not just a "lottery ticket," Chief Technology Officer Mark Lawler said.
As the economy slowly recovers from a recession that roiled through payrolls, employers like Cambia see reason to invest in worker satisfaction, pointing to lower turnover and higher productivity. But experts disagree about whether happy workforces boost corporate performance -- and ultimately the economy as a whole. Some say the economic downtown has tempered the impact of job satisfaction, because many workers are happy to have any job at all.
James Campbell Quick, a University of Texas at Austin professor who studies workplace stress, said there's no doubt that worker satisfaction affects the economy. Productive workers impact bottom lines, and those operations in turn affect the economy.
"Some people in business think it's all about the money, and they forget about the people," he said. "But the people make all the money, so it's really important."
The tough part, Quick and others say, is defining satisfaction in the workplace, which is often referred to as a universal concept. In fact, a handful of annual surveys attempt to measure the changing rates of satisfaction among workers.
But job satisfaction often encompasses several concepts, Quick said, including wages and benefits, support from supervisors and passion for the job itself.
"When we get the measure right, there is a strong relationship between happy and productive workers," he said.
The definition of happiness varies from person to person, said Eric Fruits, a Portland State University economist who runs the consulting firm Economics International Corp.
He pointed to a spring day when he walked into downtown Portland's Pioneer Tower, delighted by the smell of hyacinth near the elevator bay. But a colleague was miserable: he was allergic to the flowers.
"One guy's awesome benefit was the worst thing that could happen to him that day," Fruits said.
It's difficult to quantify those tradeoffs because they are unique to every worker, he said.
Bryce Ward, an economist at Portland's ECONorthwest, agreed. To what extent does one worker's bad day affect the overall productivity of a company? "If I just make it up some other day," he said, "then the total output may not have changed."
Plus, he said, if demand for the company's product exists, then workers will still find a way to fulfill it.
Companies may feel the largest impact if morale falls to such a low level that it prompts workers to leave en masse, he said. That's especially true in low-wage jobs with high training costs. "If you can lower that turnover cost, that will have a big effect on the company's bottom line," Ward said.
That's why it's important to engage in regular discussions with workers -- and listen to what they're saying, Quick said.
Employees who feel secure and safe in their workplace have lower absenteeism and turnover rates, he said. They're also more likely to be passionate about their jobs. And that can ultimately affect a company's financial results, he said.
"It's a work organization of human beings, not widgets," he said. "They'll take care of you, and they'll take care of the business."
However, that relationship between employers and employees has shifted in the recession as workers witnessed mass layoffs and watched their earning power erode, said Rebecca Ray, vice president of human capital at New York-based The Conference Board.
That seems to contradict a recent study released by the business-research nonprofit that shows job satisfaction climbed nearly 5 percentage points between 2010 and 2011, spiking to 47.2 percent.
But Ray said she suspects the uptick, the biggest gain since the recession, ties into the nation's stubbornly high unemployment rate, which now stands at 8.1 percent in August. Workers may be happy to have a paycheck, she said, regardless of whether they're satisfied.
The study shows that job satisfaction has long traveled a downward path: it's dropped 14 points from 1987 to 2011.
An employers' market
For young people entering the job market, workplace satisfaction is becoming less of a determining factor, said Greg Flores, associate director of PSU's Career Services department. Many of the students he counsels are inclined to accept the first job offer they receive, he said.
That made for an employers' market during the past several years, meaning companies could extend lower salaries and less exciting benefits and still attract qualified workers, he said. Although that dynamic is beginning to change, students remain less willing to risk waiting for jobs that seem a better fit.
"Students are faced with a choice, and a lot of it has to do with the reality of (their) situation," he said.
Thorpe, one of Cambia's new hires, was lucky. The 27-year-old business information systems major ultimately had at least 10 job offers to weigh. Cambia offered the best fit, he said, in part because of its "Hire 20" program that ensured he wasn't the lone new recruit trying to fit into a large organization. The new hires often go to lunch together and organize other outings, Thorpe said.
The effort, launched this spring, was such a success that Cambia plans to roll it out at its Washington, Idaho and Utah offices.
"Everything I do goes back to our members; it goes back to transforming health care," Thorpe said. "That was a really big draw for me."
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