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Gone for now, or gone for good? How to play the new talent game and win back workers

Nearly half of the employees who voluntarily left the workforce during the pandemic aren’t coming back on their own. Employers must go and get them. Here’s how to start.

No, you aren’t imagining it: workers are leaving your company faster than you can replace them. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 4.3 million people voluntarily quit their jobs in December 2021, slightly below a record high in November 2021.

Their departures have left a huge hole in the labor market. The number of current job openings (10.9 million) exceeds the number of new hires (6.3 million). And in our own recent survey of almost 600 workers who voluntarily left a job without another in hand, 44 percent said that they have little to no interest in returning to traditional jobs in the next six months.1

In the past, spikes in voluntary attrition often signaled a competition for talent, where in-demand workers left one job for a similar but better one at another company. This most recent wave of attrition is different. Most are leaving to take on very different roles—or just leaving the workforce entirely. They have been operating under extreme circumstances for extended periods and have been unable to find an adequate balance between work and life—so they are choosing “life” until they absolutely need to go back.

The competition for talent is different now, too. Employers are competing with the full array of work experiences available to today’s employees—traditional and nontraditional jobs and, in some instances, not working at all.2 To get in the game, companies must offer adequate compensation and benefits packages; that is the ante. But to win, they must recognize how the rules of the game have changed. While workers are demanding (and receiving) higher compensation, many of them also want more flexibility, community, and an inclusive culture (what we call relational factors) to accept a full-time job at a traditional employer.

Traditional employers must compete across all these elements. They will likely need to adopt entirely new tactics to find and attract “latent” talent—workers who aren’t currently looking to rejoin the labor market but who might come back if they get the right offer.

In this article, we look at the employees who left a job without another in hand, who returned and why, and how companies can begin to bring more workers back into the fold. Now more than ever, companies must redefine their attraction and retention strategies and build a value proposition that takes employees’ whole lives into account. The longer they wait, the more burnout they will create among existing employees, potentially leading to even more attrition.

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