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For in-demand workers, it's not just about the money

While the economic recovery continues to lurch in fits and starts, companies are stepping up efforts to attract and retain workers with in-demand skills, from developers to data scientists.

Armed with this newfound leverage, workers are naturally negotiating for better pay. But in addition to yelling, "Show me the money!" many have added a new ask to their demands:

"Show me the flexibility!"

A new survey by technology staffing firm Modis found that "flexible work hours" is by far the most desired benefit among workers. In the firm's survey of adult U.S. workers, slightly more than 50 percent picked flex hours as their top perk — far more than chose free food, unlimited vacation time and even on-site child care or paid parental leave.

"People are happier when they are able to take care of things when they come up," said Jack Cullen, president of Modis. "I think employers are recognizing this is real and (flexible hours) is a way to really attract and keep people."

Of course, not all workers are enjoying such leverage. September's jobs report was a huge disappointment, with the U.S. economy creating fewer jobs than expected. Data from July and August was revised downward, too, suggesting that underneath a fairly rosy top-line unemployment rate of 5.1 percent lies a complex mixed bag for workers.

There are indications that the situation may improve this quarter, however. A CareerBuilder survey released last week found 34 percent of employers plan to add full-time, permanent employees in the fourth quarter, up from 29 percent in 2014. Seasonal hiring is expected to pick up, too, CareerBuilder said.

As a result of this mixed bag, the labor market is reacting in some unusual ways. Corporations are lamenting that they're having trouble finding and keeping top talent, even as wages remain stubbornly flat. Two compensation firms — Aon Hewitt and Towers Watson — recently told CNBC that pay raises have essentially disappeared and won't reappear any time soon, despite complaints about increased employee turnover.

To the surprise of no one, pay remains the most critical factor in whether a potential employee accepts a job offer and sticks around, according to Express Employment Professionals, a firm that supplies hourly labor to corporations.

When asked, "What hurdles stop you from accepting a job?" the top answer was pay (61 percent), followed by schedule (42 percent) and hours (41 percent). Asked what keeps them on the job, they gave essentially the same response: pay (53 percent), hours (37 percent) and schedule (36 percent) made up the top three.

With workers gaining leverage and corporations remaining stubborn on pay, something's got to give.

The "give" might be time instead of money.

"Pay always is an issue," said Bob Funk, CEO of Express Employment Professionals. "But millennials are more interested in flexibility."

Cullen said more workers are aware of the research around quality of life and the always-connected worker, and increasingly are demanding that their bosses let them work at home or leave the office for hours at a time during the day. Offering such flexibility is a big selling point, particularly to younger workers.

"Gone are the days when you just put out a foosball table" to cater to younger workers, Cullen said. "We know that in high-demand skill areas, there's pent-up demand and there aren't enough resources out there. I don't think you can just continue to pay more and more. At some point, you've got to be creative."

Employee leverage is showing up in other ways, too, Cullen said. At the height of the recession, many job seekers would move just about anywhere for an opportunity. In the Modis survey, workers said they'll move, but only for a price. Fully 85 percent said they would expect a raise of 35 percent or more to relocate.

Meanwhile, some human resources departments haven't quite caught up to the new marketplace reality, Cullen warned. Corporations are losing out on workers because they are sticking with laborious, time-consuming interviewing processes — and would-be employees get scooped up by other firms during the delay.

"This is an interesting time we are in," Cullen said. "There is a lot of demand for quality workers, while employers are still very picky about the people they bring in."