When "early career" workers -- those up to age 35 -- and workers in their 40s have acquired skill sets and are deciding where they want to settle for the long run, they often take a look around, says Steve Gravenkemper, a consulting psychologist for workplace consultancy Plante & Moran LLP of Southfield, Mich., and that's the point at which many companies lose people in whom they have invested time and training.
A recent study conducted by consultancy Accenture Ltd. in 21 countries on six continents found challenging and interesting work topped the list of employer characteristics that job candidates sought when considering a new position. Rewards and compensation were a close second, and opportunity for advancement third, followed closely by a company's long-term prospects. But other popular concepts like corporate citizenship and workplace diversity were at the bottom of the list of 15 qualities.
"There are basic needs: compensation, challenge. But once you get employees in the door with these, they'll move on to looking for other things" like working for a responsible company or one that encourages teamwork, says John Campagnino, Accenture's global head of recruiting. "You need to offer recruits a package with as many of these characteristics as possible. Priorities shift over time."
Beyond entry level, the decision becomes complicated by more responsibilities -- not just marriage and children, but also the time workers have invested in honing their skills, where they have chosen to settle, and long-term goals such as retirement benefits.
"There's a paradox," says Plante & Moran's Mr. Gravenkemper. "At midcareer, people may realize how important job security is to them, and yet job security may be an illusion. Workers used to go into a company knowing ... that if they did a good job they would be employed for life. Now that's no guarantee. They want to know 'What's in it for me?' "
He adds, "I was working for one company with a group of high-potential employees...and one employee said, 'I'm so glad to see you -- I never knew I was high-potential before.' It's often the strongest performers who leave because they have the most options."
Maturing needs are why many alumni continue to utilize career services, says Beverly Principal, assistant director for employment services at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., which offers students career counseling for life.
Ms. Principal says she often sees former students who are trying to make the transition from entry level to the next step, or to start their own business. Five or six years after they start a career, "people may have a family and want completely different things. They need help figuring out the transition."
Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., has two staffers dedicated solely to helping alumni. "When the economy is good we see people looking to make more drastic changes," says Donna Goldfeder, director of career services. "When the economy is tight and things are scary" they will be more cautious about such transitions.
Companies can retain workers they have invested in, she adds. "Supervisors should show their appreciation, give compliments. It's really still about the human touch. Are your workers happy?"
They say money isn't everything, and that's true for many job hunters. While it may seem intuitive that most are concerned with compensation, it isn't always top of the list. Priorities change not only during a job, but also over a career.