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What’s the ideal amount of time to stay at a job?

Jobs for life are a thing of the past, with the average Australian worker staying just over three years in a job and people under 25 tending to stick around for less than two years. Whether it’s to climb the career ladder, get another step closer to your dream role or move overseas for a new adventure, the reasons driving job mobility are many and varied.

‘Our definition of how a career should look has changed,’ explains Dr Wouter Vleugels, a senior lecturer at Deakin Business School. ‘Compared to previous generations, people feel that every once in a while, they need to change jobs or industries.’

So, how to do employers view job tenure: is job hopping seen as a sign you’re ambitious – or flaky? Does staying for 10 years make you loyal – or stale?

Here’s what employers are looking for and how to frame your employment history when you’re looking for a new position.

Taking responsibility for your career

When your parents or grandparents started their working lives, their main concern was job security. To achieve it they would stay in the same job for many years or decades, or perhaps their entire career.

‘The idea was that you should feel lucky to be in a job,’ Dr Vleugels says. ‘The expectation was that the employer would take care of you, possibly for the rest of your life, and you would pay that back with loyalty and effort.’

Now, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Instead of the employer assuming responsibility for job security, employees are ‘more and more responsible for their own employability’, Dr Vleugels explains.

‘Your sense of job security is not coming from your employer. It’s coming from yourself, your marketability and the fact you’re competent, skilled and up to date with everything that’s going on in your industry.’

He says a consequence of this shift is shorter job tenures because of a perception that new roles help us to ‘keep learning and developing all the time’ to maintain our employability.

‘People have less patience with a traditional career path that takes time to grow and develop,’ Dr Vleugels says. ‘We’re now taking ownership of our careers.’

Guaranteeing a return on investment

Worried that staying only a few years may make you look uncommitted, and that a string of short stays on your resume, even though it’s a candidates’ job market, may be a red flag for potential employers? Don’t be, says Dr Vleugels.

‘Employers know the job market is very volatile and dynamic, and that people will come and go all the time,’ he says. ‘They also know that employees are more responsible for their own employability, and that this is the new psychological contract that they have with employees.

‘Plus, new people bring with them different mindsets, skills and perspectives, which are good for the organisation.’

But there is such a thing as a tenure that’s too short, which Dr Vleugels says can be any time less than two years. ‘If you’ve had seven jobs the past five years, that’s often a concern for employers.’

The reason is that leaving too quickly doesn’t allow the organisation to achieve a successful return on investment on your hiring.

‘Let’s say it takes one year to train you to become fully proficient in an organisation, to build strong ties with internal and external stakeholders, and you leave after one and a half years even though the organisation invested a lot of money in hiring and training you,’ Dr Vleugels says.

‘You won’t have achieved peak performance and the organisation will have been unable to capitalise on that peak performance.’

Benefiting from a longer stint

At the other end of the spectrum are the increasingly rare unicorns that manage to stay with the same employer for a decade or more. Dr Vleugels says there are benefits to sticking around, especially if the organisation values long tenures and supports employees to grow and develop.

‘If you’ve been happy in a company, it denotes strong organisational fit, which is not a bad thing,’ he says. ‘When you look for a new job, you can simply explain that you have been really happy at the company and that they invest a lot of resources in employees.’

The trick is to demonstrate career progression over your tenure. Perhaps you’ve worked on a variety of different projects, undertaken management training or changed positions every few years.

It’s important to highlight these wins on your resume, Dr Vleugels says. ‘You might talk about how you worked for the same organisation for 10 or 15 years and made promotion after promotion, staying in each role for a few years until the next promotion. That’s a very powerful narrative.

‘If you’ve been in the same job for 10 to 15 years with no promotion, employers may start asking questions about ambition.’

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Dr Wouter Vleugels
Dr Wouter Vleugels

Senior Lecturer,

Faculty of Business and Law,

Deakin Business School

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