Staffing Management

The Last Word: Their Train of Thought Has Changed

By Rick Bell

Jan. 5, 2014

For most of my career, the day started by climbing into my car, rumbling through the morning commute to a nondescript, low-slung office building in an even more nondescript, sprawling office complex. Once the tasks at hand were done, I jumped back into my rig for the evening rush-hour ride home.

That changed three years ago when I moved to Chicago. Instead of tooling Interstate 5 with just my thoughts and blabbing radio talkers, I do the communal commute on the

“El” train to work with tens of thousands of my fellow Chicagoans in the Windy City’s downtown Loop.

As you can imagine, it’s a world of difference. And it’s an awesome experience.

As journalists we’re naturally curious people. So I find myself tuning into the conversations around me — something I obviously never experienced as a solo driver on the Southern California freeways. Call me nosy, a hitchhiker, a busybody or a snoop. In some way, shape or form, they probably all fit. But there’s a reason I don’t plug in earbuds as soon as I leave the house for my 40-minute ride. I love the ambient sounds that constantly swirl around me.

Considering the hours of my commute, a lot of the conversation — particularly on the ride home — involves work.

The one constant in these drive-by chats is griping about co-workers. I’ve overheard some serious vents. Tired of the lies, unrealistic deadlines, too many meetings, incompetence, office politics run amok … you get the picture. But I’ve noticed a gradual shift in the general theme of conversation during the past three years.

It first struck me in late 2010 and into the next year that job security was a huge issue among my fellow commuters. Paralleling with a precarious economy and their likely knowing colleagues, friends and relatives who are suddenly unemployed, it was clear that the mindset was, “I feel lucky just to have a job right now.”

If my extremely unscientific poll has a shred of accuracy — and I think it does — the message is: People are looking, people. Looking for new opportunities and new challenges.

One conversation in particular has stuck with me, in a sense because it reminded me of Merle Haggard’s ode to a laid-off worker “If We Make It Through December.” Two people who appeared to be in their 40s were not only genuinely concerned for their jobs but also for their organization’s future. That evolved into their families’ long-term prospects — or seemed to, anyway:

“If we can get through the summer, I think we’ll be OK,” one said to the other.

That tune, happily, has slowly shifted with improving economic prospects. The tenor is now singing with a more hopeful tone.

People are talking about job prospects, their next move. Even though we’re in winter’s icy grasp, hibernation doesn’t appear to be an option among the workforce. It started early in 2013 with “I’m looking at …” and has quickly escalated to “I talked to … .”

Don’t get me wrong; times are tough, according to my fellow commuters. Next to arranging dinner plans, pub crawls and dog-walking arrangements (yes, dog-walking is trending on the Brown Line run), grumbling about the workplace still dominates the “El” train convo.

But a recent conversation between a 30-something guy and girl I heard went something like this:

“I met with them today. I thought it went well.”

“What did they tell you?”

“They told me about the job, and then I told them about what I’ve been doing. We talked about salary. I told her I was making in the mid-$40s. She said, ‘It seems like you’re underpaid’.”

“Ohhh, nice.”

If my extremely unscientific poll has a shred of accuracy — and I think it does — the message is: People are looking, people. Looking for new opportunities and new challenges.

Observations from a Right Management study seem to bear out my commuter communications. A small minority of employees intend to remain in their current position in 2014, a recent survey found. And one of the Right Management pollsters added a sobering perspective: “These numbers should signal a wake-up call for top management, when 4 out of 5 employees say they intend to look for employment elsewhere.”

Bolstering the cause is the highly respected UCLA Anderson Forecast, which predicts solid job growth for 2014 and beyond. The national unemployment rate that still lingers at 7 percent should drop to 6 percent by the end of 2015, noted their latest report.

So while I could now offer a discourse in why engaging your employees is crucial to keeping your well-oiled capitalistic engine humming, instead I’m going to suggest that you get out of your car, hop on the train, yank the Beats by Dre headphones off your noggin and tune into the chatter of your workforce.

Dinner plans and dog walks may dominate, but don’t be surprised when you hear your workers are planning to walk, too.

Rick Bell is Workforce's managing editor. Comment below or email Follow Bell on Twitter at @RickBell123.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email

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