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Great expectations

Anybody who has been in a position to recruit, hire and attempt to retain employees over the past three years is well aware of what the rip-roaring economy and Internet revolution hath wrought:

  • A plunging number of entry-level candidates interested in jobs other than those on the Internet or with similar fast-track potential.

  • A growing realization among candidates pursuing non-Internet jobs that they are in a position to name their terms.

  • An expectation fueled by the revolution that unless a young professional is zooming up the ladder every eight to 10 months or so, he or she is not in a growth position.

In my own journey through this strange era, I've had my share of jaw-dropping moments. There was the guy who had been working at his first job for just over a year who explained that he didn't want to work for a place that pressured people to work all the time. There was the recent college grad who outlined how much vacation she expected (three weeks), how many personal days she required, how much sick time she felt would be appropriate and which holidays she expected each year.

But I think my all-time favorite was the young man who on the first day of his job went home after his 90-minute orientation in human resources. When he was finally reached that afternoon and asked why he had left, he replied: "They said they were finished with me." He couldn't imagine that any more would be required of him for the day.

I'll admit that as someone who entered the work force during the Reagan recession-when you were damn lucky to get an internship that paid nothing (literally), when you were advised to take any lowly job to get your foot in the door and when you didn't buck too hard on the subject of salary because there were plenty of other people itching to take your place-there is part of me that looks on these kids' expectations and thinks: Good for them.

In truth, the lean-and-mean corporate mentality that preceded the high times is also responsible for younger workers' outlook. Many in the generation of workers ahead of them were ill-used, over-burdened and under-appreciated. And one reality of the Internet revolution and simultaneous work force shortage is that it has forced every employer to re-examine salary structure, benefits and workload expectations for every job level.

Now that the revolution is winding down, there will no doubt be a temptation for many companies to return to the lean-and-mean way as quickly as the laws of worker supply and demand allow.

But don't bet on it. The mass of workers who are now four years or so into their professional lives have never known a down-market cycle. They've never experienced a hiring freeze. They've been receiving annual salary increases or bonus packages at levels unheard of since the 1960s.

When companies begin reining in their expectations, these workers are going to start hopping to new jobs even more quickly than they had in the past. They still have one great advantage: There aren't nearly as many of them as there were in the generations before them.

Any company looking at its retention and staff development strategy for the next three to five years should start laying out a plan now about how its going to help these employees through the emotional transition that is on its way.

Maybe we'll come out on the other end with a better-than-the-old-lean-and-mean way of doing things as well as something more reasonable that what we've been dealing with during the great boom economy.

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