One sign of better economic times is when more people start finding jobs. Another is when they feel confident enough to quit them.
More people quit their jobs in the last three months than were laid off - a sharp reversal after 15 straight months in which there were more layoffs than voluntary departures. The trend suggests the job market is finally thawing.
Katie Charland is leaving a job at a parenting magazine in Phoenix to take a position with a nonprofit that supplies children's educational programs.
Charland, 27, says the new position is a dream job. While she is abandoning seniority at her current job, she thinks the economy is expanding enough that her new employer will be able to attract state and corporate funding.
"I don't see leaving my job to pursue this as a risk," she says. "I do feel like the economy is getting better, and there's more opportunity out there."
Like Charland, some of the quitters are leaving for new jobs. Others have no firm offers. But their newfound confidence about landing work is itself evidence of more hiring and a strengthening economy.
"There is a century's worth of evidence that bears out this view that quits rise and layoffs fall as the job market improves," said Steven Davis, an economist at the University of Chicago.
Still, the number of people quitting their jobs is nowhere near what it was before the recession, which began in December 2007. And economists expect the improvement in the job market to be fitful, rather than consistent. In May, for example, private employers added only 41,000 net jobs after adding 218,000 in April.
Yet the long-term trend points to an improving job market: The economy has created 982,000 jobs this year compared with a loss of eight million in 2008 and 2009.
The number of people quitting their jobs rose in April to 2.14 million, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this week. That was the most for any month in more than a year. Meanwhile, 1.75 million people were laid off in April, the fewest since January 2007, before the recession began.
During the depths of the recession, workers were hesitant to quit - and not only because jobs were scarce. Even if they found a new job, some feared that accepting it would leave them vulnerable to a layoff. At many companies, layoffs follow a simple formula: Last hired, first fired.
Many clung to their jobs out of fear, said David Adams, vice president of training at Adecco, a national staffing agency. When Adecco tried to recruit workers to fill open positions, it frequently ran into the same obstacle: Few workers felt like betting on a new job that might soon disappear.
Not so much anymore. Adecco is seeing more employed workers seeking interviews, rather than laid-off workers searching for a lifeline.
"It's really starting to move toward a market where the employee can have a lot more confidence making a move," Adams said.
Such optimism was rare in 2008 and 2009, as the unemployment rate soared to a 26-year high of 10.1 percent. The number of people who quit fell 37 percent between 2007 and 2009 to the fewest for any year since the government began tracking the data in 2001.
Now, predicts consultant Razor Suleman, who helps companies retain their best workers, "there is going to be a mass exodus of the top performers as the economy starts to turn around."
Fewer workers quit
their jobs during
the 2008-09 recession.
Year Number of quits
Bureau of Labor Statistics