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September, 2000, Vol. 123, No. 9

Looking for a ‘better’ job: 
job-search activity of the employed

Joseph R. Meisenheimer II and Randy E. Ilg

An undisputed fact about the U.S. labor force is that people who already have jobs sometimes decide to look for "better" jobs. However, each potential jobseeker determines his or her own criteria for defining "better," and that definition may change as the individual’s circumstances change. For example, younger workers may experiment with different kinds of jobs and frequently look for new ones that match their interests and abilities. Other workers who plan to start families, or already have them, may seek jobs that offer enhanced family-related benefits, such as health insurance, child care, or vacation time. And, workers of all kinds or in all circumstances may seek jobs that offer higher pay or greater security. In February 1999, 4.5 percent of employed wage and salary workers had actively looked for a new job in the prior 3 months, but the likelihood that workers have looked for a new job varied, depending on their characteristics and their current jobs.

Until recently, there has been little statistical information about the job-search activities of people who already are employed. Since the 1940s, observers of the U.S. labor market have had information available on a monthly basis about the unemployed—that is, jobseekers who are without jobs. This information comes from the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly survey of about 50,000 households that is conducted by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.1

The first BLS effort to learn about the job-search activities of employed persons was from a set of supplemental questions in the May 1976 CPS.2 According to data from that survey, 4.2 percent of all workers (3.3 million) who had been employed at their present job for at least 4 weeks had looked for a new job in the 4 weeks prior to the survey.

Since the 1976 survey, the CPS had not included any questions on the job-search activities of employed persons until supplemental questions were included in February 1995 on workers in contingent and alternative employment arrangements. Those questions were repeated in the CPS in February 1997 and again in February 1999. In these surveys, workers were asked about their job-search activity in the prior 3 months. (Workers who had less than 3 months of tenure with their present employer were asked about job-search activities conducted since they had started with their present employer.) Because the length of the reference period for the 1995, 1997, and 1999 surveys was 3 months, the data from those surveys are not strictly comparable to data from the 1976 survey, which had a 4-week reference period.

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1 The main purpose of the CPS is to obtain information on employment, unemployment, demographics, earnings, and other characteristics of the labor market in the United States. The Census Bureau conducts the CPS and the Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzes and publishes the data. In the CPS, most of the unemployed are persons who do not have a job, but are available for work and have actively sought employment in the 4 weeks prior to the monthly administration of the survey. The CPS also obtains information on the demographic characteristics of the unemployed, their reasons for unemployment, the length of their job search, the types of job-search methods they have used, the occupations and industries in which they previously had worked, and more. For information on how national unemployment estimates are compiled from the CPS, see How the Government Measures Unemployment, Report 864 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 1994), available on the Internet at: http://www.bls.gov/cps/cps_htgm.htm. A more detailed technical explanation of the CPS is available in BLS Handbook of Methods, Bulletin 2490 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 1997), pp. 4–14, available on the Internet at: /opub/hom/.

2 For an analysis of the data from the May 1976 CPS, see Carl Rosenfeld, “The extent of job search by employed workers,” Monthly Labor Review, March 1977, pp. 58–62.

Related BLS programs
Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey

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