The Employee Crisis

stepping stones

There is a significant shortage of employees in the United States. One popular explanation suggests that the pandemic caused a massive realignment of personal values. Some are calling it the “great resignation.” Another popular explanation suggests that average Americans are disincentivized to return to work due to overzealous government benefits. Which is correct? There probably isn’t a single satisfying sound bite explanation, but this past week, I got schooled by my clients and my students and it made me think deeply about how we will adapt to the new normal.

The Student’s POV

While on campus last week, I had the pleasure of spending some quality time with dozens of students at the Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University. The topics of our conversations varied, but future employment opportunities were a common thread. To a student, each individual believed that they were likely to have a new job every 18-24 months. Many also believed that they would always have a side hustle, and many of that subset believed that the “only” full-time job they would ever accept would be a full-time version of their side hustle.

It was also clear that the best and the brightest of these young people see themselves as mercenaries – in it for themselves and dedicated to accomplishing their own goals with absolutely no sense of loyalty to any corporate entity. One student may have been speaking for her whole class when she said, “I’m not looking for a 20-year-pin, and I don’t know if I want to do the same thing every day for the rest of my life. A job is just a stepping stone to a better job.”

Importantly, not all of the GenZers I spoke with believe they are predestined to become de facto freelance workers. About 25 percent of them were thinking about getting a “job” in the classic sense. Just to clarify: at best this is armchair research. I didn’t do a formal study, but I did get a “sense of the room.”

The Employer’s POV

From an employer’s point of view, an employee enables and empowers value creation. So much has been written about leadership and management and human resources and employee relations and culture and, and, and… there’s no reason to get into it here. But one question haunts me: How much can an employer invest in an employee who starts looking for a better job at another firm on their first day of work?

It’s easy to design workflows and processes that use human beings as tools. These are the low-paying, task-oriented jobs that require a little training and a lot of supervision. They are also the jobs no one seems to want right now. It is much harder to build a corporate culture around full-time employees who are treating your job like a gig. Especially if you need to mix that group with full-time employees who are looking for 20-year-pins.

The Enduring Employment Crisis

Employees don’t want to work in an environment where they don’t feel they are sharing in the value they help create. They don’t like being treated like “tools” or “cogs in a wheel.” On the other hand, the prevailing employee attitude is that it’s OK to walk off a job for a better one with little or no notice.

Because of this, employers are not motivated to invest more resources than absolutely necessary on any given employee. (Note: I understand that employee retention is “job one” for every HR department. But adapting to this trend may require changes in corporate culture that are outside the mandate of the average HR department.)

This misalignment of incentives and outcomes does not seem to be on a path to correct itself. Even when pressed for cash, no one is going to stay at a job where they feel abused – especially if it doesn’t pay enough to cover their monthly bills. And no employer is going to invest more on employees they know have a foot out the door.

This misalignment may not be the root cause of our current employment crisis, but it is a tale of two opposing ideologies that are at odds with one another. Spend 20 minutes on LinkedIn looking at career paths and the trend towards an 18-24 month average time at a job becomes clear.

The Fix

One sure way to fix this is to create jobs that are designed as stepping stones for employees. Of course, this is easier said than done. But if the concept of employee continues to metamorphose into “project” or “gig” worker, employers will be forced to adapt or choose from a pool of applicants who are just looking for a paycheck (until a better paycheck comes along).

Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it. I am not a financial advisor. Nothing contained herein should be considered financial advice. If you are considering any type of investment you should conduct your own research and, if necessary, seek the advice of a licensed financial advisor.

About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit


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