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‘A giant game of musical chairs’: Waves of workers are changing jobs as the pandemic wanes

Quitting is at a 20-year high as people across industries reassess their careers

Karen Webb had been looking to make a job change when the pandemic hit and took a new job in April.
Karen Webb had been looking to make a job change when the pandemic hit and took a new job in April.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

After a dozen long years at Google, David Smydra had been thinking about moving on. But when the pandemic hit, all he could do was “shelter in place ... hold on, do my best to weather the storm.”

But working from home in West Roxbury only increased the feeling of burnout that had been building before COVID-19. So as the virus loosened its grip on the region, his urge for a reset returned, even stronger.

“The effects of the pandemic gave me clarity to see my situation without the blinders of the daily hustle,” he said.

In April, the 42-year-old Smydra left his job at Google overseeing news content strategy and joined another big tech company — Twitter — to work on news curation.

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“Same screen, same desk, same chair, same remoteness as before,” he said. “Yet the new job [feels] completely and utterly different, which is exactly what I was looking for.”

Whether workers are moving between high-tech firms, changing fields, or even outright stepping off a career path, the job market in Greater Boston is seething with activity. Many employees are burned out from the intense pace that seemed to have no boundaries during the work-from-home era. Others have suffered personal losses or are simply looking to do something new. Whatever the reasons, the amount of voluntary churn in the job market is at a 21st-century high.

David Smydra worked in his home office in West Roxbury.
David Smydra worked in his home office in West Roxbury.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Almost 4 million people nationwide quit their jobs of their own accord in April. Although the trend had been building prior to the pandemic, that was the highest ever for a single month since the Labor Department started keeping track of that statistic in 2000.

What’s more, almost one-third of Boston-area workers say they are planning to look for a new job in the next several months, according to a survey by employment firm Robert Half conducted in March and April. (Boston’s rate was about the same as the nationwide average; by comparison, 50 percent of workers in Atlanta and 44 percent in Charlotte, N.C., for example, said they planned to look for new jobs.)

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Anthony Klotz, a Texas A&M University associate professor of management, has dubbed the trend “the great resignation.” Some of the quitting simply represents a backlog of people such as Smydra who might have made a change last year but were delayed by the pandemic, Klotz said. On top of that, however, are workers who have come to new realizations about how they want to live their lives.

“During the pandemic, lots of people experienced mild or major forms of trauma and lots of uncertainty about their life,” Klotz said. “Lots of people were having revelations about how they wanted to spend their time.”

Matt Letson is one of those people. As an IT specialist in the Newton public schools, he spent the beginning of the crisis helping set up 4,000 iPads for remote schooling of elementary school students. Working from his home in Lowell and losing an hour of commuting each way was a big benefit. But like many others, Letson also suffered a major loss during this time. His fiancé grew ill and died in November (though not from COVID-19). Suddenly, he was reevaluating everything.

“A salary is not the most important thing in life, because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed,” said Letson, 33. “I realized that I needed a change of scenery, both physically and job wise.”

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He quit his job in the Newton schools and is moving to Saint John in New Brunswick, Canada, next month. It’s where his father grew up and an area he visited as a kid. He’s been applying for IT jobs, with bartending as a temporary fallback. “I’m also taking this time to put me first and enjoy what life brings me,” Letson said.

Kathy Robinson, a local career and executive coach, said she’s clearly seeing something like “the great resignation” in her work.

“Beneath the surface, there is a coiled spring of employees ready to jump at the first good opportunity,” she said. “I think that what we are seeing right now is a giant game of musical chairs.”

At her Boston-based career counseling company, TurningPoint, Robinson said that 68 percent of inquiries from late March through June were from people looking to change jobs, up from about 55 percent during the same period last year.

More striking is what employees say when they fill out TurningPoint’s online form.

“The number of times that people typed ‘burnt out’ in capital letters ... it is so real and so pervasive,” she said. “This quantity of burnout is unlike anything I have ever seen before.”

Indeed, work got much more stressful for many people during the pandemic.

Twenty-four-year-old Alisa Nano had started work as a substance abuse counselor at a suburban treatment center at the end of 2019. When COVID-19 shut down local travel, the center shifted to treating people by phone. Nano said she was initially excited to take on new telehealth clients. But her employer, which she declined to name, increased her caseload and required her to visit patients in their homes before she was comfortable seeing them in person.

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Complaints about her workload and other problems went ignored, Nano said.

“It became clear to me that I was working for a company that did not respect myself or my boundaries,” she added. “I put myself before anything else for once, and submitted my two weeks’ [notice] despite still being terrified about having no income.”

Nano is still looking for a job.

Meanwhile, Karen Webb was looking to make a change before the pandemic hit. Working at Dell EMC over the past few years, Webb felt stymied, not utilizing the leadership skills she’d built over her career and unable to manage her team as she wanted. Remote work didn’t solve her issues, but it did shutter the tech job market for a while.

“Everybody just hunkered down, the job descriptions disappeared from LinkedIn, people hit the pause button,” she said.

Still, the 55-year-old marketing executive kept networking with former colleagues and pounced when a role opened at Cisco Systems, the California-based networking gear maker that has offices in Boston’s Seaport District. She started in April and, with a team of co-workers spread across the country, expects to continue working remotely and avoiding an hour-plus commute into Boston most days.

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So far, it’s just the change Webb was seeking. “I feel like I woke up in job heaven,” she said.


Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.