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Worker tenure in 1991.

In 1991, American workers had 4.5 median years of continuous tenure with their employers and 6.5 median years of cumulative tenure in their occupations according to a recent survey. (See table 1.) The Current Population Survey (CPS) for January 1991 collected data on the length of time employed people had been working for their current employers and in their current occupations. According to the survey, only one-sixth of all workers had been in their current occupations for 1 year or less.


The greater occupational tenure compared with employer tenure implies that the labor force is more willing, and perhaps more able, to switch employers than occupations. However, these two kinds of tenure are not strictly comparable because they are measured differently. Employer tenure was defined as the continuous number of years a person had worked for his or her current employer. On the other hand, occupational tenure was defined as the cumulative number of years a person had worked in his or her current occupation, regardless of number of employers, interruptions in employment, or time spent in other occupations.

Although cumulative occupational tenure is inherently longer than ontinuous employer tenure, they tend to mirror each other. Regardless of the measure used, tenure increased steadily with age. Generally, men had more tenure than women, whites more than blacks and Hispanics, and college graduates more than individuals with less education. In addition, self-employed workers had more tenure than wage and salary workers, and tenure increased directly with compensation.

Tenure information is of use to employers, individuals in the labor market, government analysts, and private researchers. Employers use tenure data for personnel planning and for comparison with firms in their industry. People in the job market may look at the data to determine career paths or to identify occupations and industries in which worker tenure is characteristically long or short. Government and private researchers use tenure data to analyze labor market flows and fluctuations or examine employment characteristics in quickly growing or declining industries and occupations. Analysts also compare domestic tenure data to that of other developed economies, such as Japan's and Germany's, to illuminate differences or similarities.

In conjunction with separation rates, tenure information can also be used to analyze job turnover and replacement needs for industries and occupations. Total separations summed with job growth yields total job openings for a specific industry or occupation. Tenure data and separation rates together present an almost complete picture of how workers move through the labor force.

Factors Affecting Tenure

Tenure reflects labor force demographics, the nature of work, the economy in general, and - to a lesser degree - job satisfaction. Longer tenure could indicate high worker satisfaction, a stable economy, and a strong relationship between worker and job. Shorter tenure could result from low job satisfaction, a volatile economy, or weak employee-job relationships. More tangible factors influencing tenure are variables such as age, sex, race, ethnicity (and immigration patterns), self-employment, education, compensation, detailed occupation and industry, and employment trends. The discussion that follows examines these variables, as well as past and projected trends.


Although education, earnings, and other factors all affect tenure, age is the single most important determinant. Median employer tenure was only 1.2 years for workers aged 16 to 24 but reached 12.4 years for workers aged 55 to 64. Median occupational tenure for workers in these age groups was 2 years and 17.4 years, respectively. Youth have short tenure because they have little time in the labor force and are more likely to change jobs frequently Most workers tend to settle into career paths, however, and the increase in tenure with age indicates an unwillingness or an inability to switch jobs in midcareer and lose accrued benefits. Interestingly, median employer tenure dips for workers aged 65 and older, whereas median occupational tenure continues to increase. The difference may result from some workers retiring from a job with one employer and then joining another organization without changing occupations.

Sex, Race, and Ethnicity

Men had longer occupational and employer tenure than women. Both sexes had about the same tenure for young workers, but the difference increased with Age. Men have been in their jobs longer than women, on average, because many women currently in the labor force interrupted their careers for extended periods to attend to home and family responsibilities.

Differences between whites and blacks were small in most cases. However, among women in the 55- to 64-year-old age group, the median employer tenure was 13.9 years for blacks and only 10.2 years for whites. Historically, black women have tended to follow a pattern of more continuous employment than white women.

Hispanics. who may be of any race, have less employer or occupational tenure, on average, than non-Hispanics. Many Hispanics are recent immigrants, whose potential for tenure with American employers obviously is lower than that of lifetime residents. The comparatively young age of Hispanic workers and their disproportionately, large representation in low-paying service occupations also help explain their relatively shorter tenure.

While employer tenure was the same for Hispanic men and women, men had higher median occupational tenure than women. Although the reason for this difference is not clear, it may result from immigrants counting occupational tenure in the country of origin, where women may have been less likely to work outside the home.

Self-employed Workers

Self-employed workers had been in their jobs twice as long as wage and salary workers. Medians were very high in occupations such as dentist (15.1 years) and barber (27.2 years), in which more than two-thirds of the workers were self-employed. The experience needed to become successfully self-employed contributes to the longer tenure of this group. Before becoming self-employed, people may have spent years in their occupations working for other employers. Self-employed workers are also somewhat older than the typical labor force participant. In addition, the self-employed have greater flexibility in adjusting their work schedules to suit their needs and. thus, are more likely than others to work beyond age 65.

Education and Training

Tenure increased with the educational attainment of the worker. The more time and resources workers invest in education for a specific occupation, the less likely they are to switch fields, because the change could mean a loss of earnings and other benefits. Workers who must make very large investments in education, such as physicians and lawyers, usually remain in their occupations until retirement, although they may change employers. Occupational attachment also tends to be strong in skilled crafts, such as plumber and machinist, that require several years of on-the-job or apprenticeship training. Running against the trend for education, workers with 1 to 3 years of college had slightly less occupational and employer tenure than those with just a high school diploma, probably because many of the former were still attending college and had part-time jobs of short duration.


In general, the greater the compensation and benefits, the longer the tenure. Higher wages can either result from or contribute to tenure. Individuals having more experience with an employer or in an occupation usually earn more because the extra experience raises their value as employees. But a worker who receives especially high wages may stay with that employer or in an occupation longer than he or she otherwise would.

Detailed Occupations and Industries

Comparing median employer and occupational tenure for detailed occupations and industries provides useful insights into the behavior of workers. Table 2 presents both kinds of tenure for occupations that had 50,000 or more workers in January 1991. Table 3 shows median employer and occupational tenure for industries that had 100,000 or more workers in January 1991.


When median occupational tenure exceeds median employer tenure, as it usually does, the typical worker in that occupation has probably worked for more than one employer without changing occupations. Employer mobility of registered nurses, for example, is relatively high, as indicated by their median employer tenure of 5.2 years and median occupational tenure of 10.6 years. Recent tightness in the labor market for nurses has forced hospitals and other organizations to compete for these workers by increasing salaries and benefits, thus contributing to movement between employers.

Less commonly, employer tenure can, in certain cases, be greater than occupational tenure. This may indicate that workers have advanced to better occupations but remained in the same organization. Firefighting and fire prevention supervisors, for example, had median employer tenure of 20.3 years and median occupational tenure of 15.0 years. These workers are restricted to relatively few employers in any given area - almost all of them work for municipal fire departments. Advancement in fire departments usually occurs from within the organization, and mobility between different fire departments is limited. Therefore, firefighters who become supervisors usually have many years of tenure with their employers before getting promoted, and they continue to accumulate employer tenure until retirement.

Just as the comparison between employer and occupational tenure can be interpreted for occupations, characteristics of some industries can be inferred from the data in table 3. Industries in which workers have more employer tenure than occupational tenure usually are characterized by large firms and large plants, which may mean a greater variety of potential occupations for employees. Employer tenure was longer than occupational tenure in several manufacturing industries, including motor vehicles and equipment, photographic equipment and supplies, pulp and paper, and aluminum. Employer tenure also was longer in telephone communications, railroads, electric light and power, and the postal service. On the other hand, employer tenure was comparatively short in the construction industry because fluctuations in building activity result in workers changing employers time and again.


Trends: Past and Future

Tenure data reveal trends in two different ways: Trends in tenure itself, which can be discovered by comparing data from one year with that of another; and trends in employment by occupation and industry, which can be seen by comparing tenure in one occupation or industry with that of the national average.

Trends in tenure have been mixed. Median occupational tenure rose from 5.7 years in January 1983 to 6.6 years in January 1987 and then declined slightly to 6.5 years in January 1991. In the same years, median years of employer tenure were 4.4, 4.2, and 4.5, respectively.

In the future, median employer and occupational tenure should gradually lengthen as a result of an aging workforce and a slower increase in the labor force participation of women. The median age of all workers, which rose only slightly from 35.8 years to 36.6 years between 1975 and 1990, is projected to rise to 40.6 years in 2005 because workers in the future will have had the opportunity to be in their jobs longer. Among women, rapid increase in labor force participation contributed to low average tenure because many of those entering jobs had no previous experience in their occupations and no uninterrupted service with an employer. However, the labor force participation rate for women, which increased from 46.3 percent in 1975 to 57.5 percent in 1990, is projected to rise more slowly over the next 15 years, thus the average tenure for women will be less affected by new workers.

In general, for those employed in industries and occupations that are growing slowly or decreasing, median tenure is high, whereas for workers in occupations and industries that are growing rapidly. median tenure is low.

Occupations with the greatest average tenure generally have been declining but are appealing enough to encourage continued worker attachment - examples are farmer, locomotive operator, and barber. Other occupations with strong worker attachment - such as computer systems analyst and paralegal - have about average or below average tenure because they are relatively new and growing fast.

Industries with declining employment, such as manufacturing and mining, do not need new workers to replace all employees who resign or retire. In fact, workers with the shortest tenure in a declining industry usually are the first to be laid off during a reduction of work force, and workers who are retained are likely to be the ones with the greatest seniority. Consequently, the average tenure of workers in declining industries tends to rise. On the other hand, firms in growing industries, such as business services and health services, add many new workers to the payroll, which tends to keep average tenure low.

Two industries - computer and data processing services and blast furnaces and basic steel products - illustrate the effect growth has on employer tenure. In the first, median employer tenure was 2.9 years; in the second, it was 12.5 years. Rapidly expanding demand for specialized programming and software led to 12 percent annual employment growth in the computer services industry during 1975-90, making it one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S. economy. During the same period, employment in the steel industry declined 4.5 percent annually. as foreign competition forced firms to increase productivity by investing in laborsaving technology and closing inefficient plants.

Rapid employment growth also helped keep employer tenure low in nursing and personal care facilities, residential care facilities, transportation services, and advertising. In contrast, lack of employment growth contributed to high employer tenure in railroads, coal mining, and petroleum refining.
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Title Annotation:analysis of length of employment
Author:Maguire, Steven R.
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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