The Mysterious “Great” Job Market

There are six million US job openings, a record high; but workers don’t seem happy. Can savvy leaders help?

On the surface, it looks like one of the healthiest job markets in US history. Unemployment is at its lowest level in 16 years, and weekly wages are up more than 16 percent since the start of the decade.

And perhaps the best-looking news of all came out this week. The US government’s JOLTS report (Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey) showed that there were nearly six million job openings nationwide in April, the most since the government started keeping track in 2000. Plus, there’s only about one unemployed person for every job opening, a record low, and a far cry from the six unemployed workers for every opening during the Great Recession.

And yet, a lot of people don’t feel great. Recent surveys show that Americans think the economy is, at best, treading water; they also don’t trust their bosses and worry nearly as much now as they did during the Great Recession. “Even if you’re doing well, you’re probably reluctant to forecast happy days forever because it’s so complex out there,” says Alan Guarino, vice chairman of Korn Ferry's CEO and Board Services practice.

The nation’s political divide isn’t helping, of course; surveys show that American confidence in the economy is at its lowest point since the election. But experts say you don’t have to look very far to find the job-related reasons behind why people aren’t happy. That weekly wage-growth statistics may look good, but it’s barely ahead of the US’s rate of inflation over the same time period and well below the growth in prices for big-ticket expenses such as college tuition and healthcare. Meanwhile, only 45 percent of people have work that involves 30 hours or more each week and provides a steady paycheck, according to a recent survey. More troubling, Americans aren’t excited about their jobs. Surveys found as few as one-third of Americans say they’re engaged at work.  

Organizations may be unwilling to raise wages, especially when growth is hard to find, and leaders may not be able to do much about people’s broad anxiety. But experts say they can have a considerable impact on employee engagement. Being a transparent and trustworthy boss is a good start, says Benjamin Frost, Korn Ferry’s global product manager for pay. “Workers join companies, but they leave bosses,” he says. Bosses also can do a better job giving workers achievable career paths and authority to match their responsibilities, and showing how their work is helping the company achieve worthwhile goals.

Of course, leaders have a vested interest in helping workers feel engaged; enthusiastic workers committed to their organizations can drive companies to considerably better financial returns. Plus, good job market or not, they’re less likely to quit.