Employees are starting to say two words bosses haven't heard in years: "I quit!"
Numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in November, the last month for which data are available, more workers voluntarily left their jobs than were laid off. Some 1.849 million people quit, compared to 1.657 million who were laid off.
What's more, this was the fourth consecutive month to see quitters come out on top.
The number quitting, says Bureau of Labor economist John Wohlford, is an indication of worker confidence: You don't leave a job, even a crummy one, unless you think you can find another. And you don't leave a good job unless you think you can find a better.
"It's an important number," says John Challenger, president of executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
"When unemployment is high, employers are in the driver's seat. Now job insecurity is dissipating; people are starting to vote with their feet," he said. "This may signal there's some shift beginning to occur."
For him, four straight months is confirmation.
Robert Arnold, 37, had the courage to quit his job in June 2010. The mid-level banking executive was hesitant, he admitted, to leave an OK job with "a solid employer" -- a Fortune 500 bank in Charlotte. He didn't want to quit just to escape; he wanted something better.
"A better job -- that's key," Arnold said.
He didn't want to settle for something lower-level. After a four-month search he found a better job in an equally solid bank and made the leap.
It's worked out well, he said, if only because he now feels "less stress."
Charlotte's job market he described as improving. Back when he was looking, he said, he saw many candidates overqualified for job openings. Now, he said, he sees what he calls "stretch" candidates -- people who meet, say, only half the requirements for a given job.
John Challenger says the uptick in people quitting is good news for star performers, whom management will have to work harder to retain.
"You should be identifying your key players," he advised bosses. "Companies still are very thinly staffed, so losing people can really leave gaps. It's important for employers to get out in front of this issue."
Lauren Herring, president and CEO of Impact Group, a global career management firm, said employers are making a mistake if they think they can "bribe" employees into staying. It's not that money is unimportant. It's just that other considerations may matter more than compensation.
She cites as proof an employee survey done by Towers Watson that finds salary to be the fourth most important guarantee of worker retention.
Employees ascribed greater importance to such intangibles as having a boss who champions their career and opportunities for advancement. They said their employer's reputation also matters highly to them.
To what better jobs will quitters go? Today's job postings give a preview of tomorrow's hiring.
Gautam Godhwani, CEO of Simply Hired, a job search engine, said his website's listings are drawn from the sites of companies seeking new hires, from newspapers, from government agencies, staffing agencies and job boards.
"Before the recession, we had over 5 million listings," he said. "In the trough of the recession, we had 2.1 million. Now it's back up to more than 5 million. We see real growth ahead."
His company, he said, provides a "real-time snapshot of jobs across the web," as compared to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which is historical.
Industries with the biggest recent gains in postings include automotive and transportation, both of which are coming off a low base.
Comparing December 2010 to December 2009, there's been a 137 percent increase in automotive postings, he said. He attributed the growth in part to Toyota's and Honda's reopening major Midwest plants, to the turnaround of GM, and the re-purposing of an idle California plant to build the Tesla electric car.
Manufacturing, too, is witnessing a major turnaround, judged by job openings.
"At the end of last year, there were 168,000 openings in manufacturing," he said. "When you think of all the talk about U.S. manufacturing having gone overseas, the growth has been incredible."
Postings at Indeed.com, a competing job search engine, show a similarly rosy picture.
The website offers job seekers various tools. With one, they can zero in on markets with the most job openings in their chosen specialties. With another, they can see how many people are chasing how many jobs in 50 different U.S. markets.
The best market right now for job seekers is San Jose, Calif., with 162 postings for every thousand residents, Indeed.com CEO Paul Forster said.
The worst? New Orleans, with only 25 per thousand.