Celeste Gudas

American fashion workers are looking for payback, and they’re ready to take their skills elsewhere to get it.

This story first appeared in the June 11, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

After biding their time and hoping for continued employment during the Great Recession, employees at U.S. retail and apparel firms are looking to improve the quality of their work lives as well as their compensation, according to the 2012 Salary Survey and Job Market Report from 24 Seven, the New York-based talent recruitment firm, and WWD.

And their patience is limited.


“In 2010, people were hunkered down in jobs they were grateful to have,” said Celeste Gudas, chief executive officer of 24 Seven. “The job market had been bombed and they were afraid to leave the bunker. In 2012, money is the key driver. You get the sense that employees are cautious, but talent is restless.”

While management continues to watch over compensation and other expenses rigorously as the U.S. economy proceeds through a protracted, difficult recovery, their employees are making plans to move on.

According to the survey, to be released this week, median compensation rose 3.9 percent to about $70,000 last year, with all categories up but those in digital and Web-based specialties up a more robust 4.9 percent.

“That indicates progress, but essentially keeping up with the cost of living,” Gudas said.

Workers engaging in occupational mobility have fared better. Twelve percent of the 1,700 respondents were in new roles, either at new companies or with those who employed them last year. The median compensation increase for employees in new jobs at the same company was 11 percent while those in new roles after switching companies averaged a 9.8 percent boost in compensation.

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Not surprisingly, as individuals aspire to resume a path of upward mobility, job satisfaction and loyalty to employers are low. Job satisfaction, at 60 percent in 2011, fell to 51 percent this year and just one in four Baby Boomers and one in 10 Millennials indicated they are “highly satisfied” with their current work circumstances. Overall, fewer than one in six respondents — 16 percent — indicated they are “highly satisfied.” Three in five expect their satisfaction levels to either stay about the same or deteriorate in the future.

Although the circumstances leading to freelancers’ self-employment are often related to the weakness in the job market, they have a decidedly better outlook. Sixty-two percent of them expect their job satisfaction levels to improve. Employees don’t object to their work-life balance — 69 percent believe it’s positive — but that figure, too, is higher among the freelance population.

Loyalty to employers is increasingly rare. Nine out of 10 respondents said they are willing to consider positions with other employers, and 70 percent are considering a job change in the next year, up from 68 percent a year ago. Supporting Gudas’ assertion that money is the principal determinant of job views, the most popular reason workers would consider a move is salary, favored by 28 percent, followed by growth potential (16 percent) and better advancement opportunities (15 percent). “A job I like better” and improved quality of life were each chosen by 12 percent of those responding.

Freelancers, who constituted 11 percent of the sample, had a decidedly better outlook, becoming less likely to consider corporate life the longer they were independent. While 7.8 percent were open to traditional employment after one to two years on their own, the share slipped to 6.1 percent for those on their own for 10 years or more.

Many of the freelancers came to their circumstances involuntarily, with 38 percent of them saying they’d been terminated or laid off by their former employers. Still, a greater percentage chose the “flexibility of freelance” (47 percent) and the freedom it affords (42 percent) when asked to check off any and all reasons they’d taken that career path.

“Some of the Baby Boomers were pushed out of their roles with 20-plus years of experience,” noted Gudas, “and they know it’s going to be hard breaking into a role at their previous levels. They’re asking what they can do to gain skills they don’t have.”

When asked to identify aspects of their jobs that trouble them other than compensation, the single biggest gripe was “lack of clear career direction/path,” garnering a 16 percent response that was higher among Millennials and Gen Xers. “Staying professionally relevant and employable” was selected by 9 percent of the sample, but two overlapping segments of the base — Boomers and freelancers — were substantially more concerned about it.

The survey, conducted Feb. 22 to March 15 by Inavero Inc., touched on the need for firms to develop retention strategies and their failure in most cases to do so. Only 20 percent had plans in place to keep their best employees. Sixty-nine percent of these had a strategy geared to top performers and 25 percent one geared for all employees. The remainder — 6 percent — simply weren’t sure of the specifics of their retention plans.

“Companies in the digital and tech worlds like Google and Apple offer discretionary benefits and career pathing, but in fashion, the pattern is choppy and inconsistent,” Gudas said, pointing to benefits such as summer hours or flex-time. “As digital gets more important, fashion is lagging but competing with these companies for brain power.”

She noted that many companies in the apparel space make substantial investments in customer acquisition and retention but simply don’t match the effort with respect to their own employees.

“There’s a tendency to think of this as an employer’s market,” she said. “I don’t think that’s smart. One should think of it as an employee’s market.”