More Americans Quitting Than Being Laid Off, Stats Show

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Take this job and shove it?

That’s the title of an old country chestnut, written by David Allan Coe in 1978, and most famously covered by Johnny Paycheck.

Fast forward 34 years and it’s a tune, in increasingly strident fashion, being sung by more and more Americans workers.

Why Americans are feeling the urge to leave a job in this economy seems to be a mystery. The U.S. Labor Department just announced that the number of U.S. workers applying for jobless benefits spiked to its highest levels since January (to 380,000, the agency reports).

And the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the unemployment rate for March was 8.2% (with many private economists saying the real jobless rate is much higher than that).

So what’s up with the "quitters"? In actuality, Americans have been leaving jobs on a regular basis, although it hasn’t received much notice in the media.

According to the government’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, the “quits rate” (the term the government uses for workers who leave a job on their own) rose to 2.1 million – 300,000 above the 1.8 million the government recorded at the height of the recession in January 2009. The most recent high was 2.9 million American workers leaving their jobs in December 2007, before the economic tsunami hit.

Taken together with the survey’s “separations” figure (the term Uncle Sam uses for workers who leave a job either via retirement, “voluntary quits,” and involuntary layoffs), 51% of such employment separations came from employees walking away from their jobs. That’s up from 49.8% in February, and signals a milestone for the survey – more Americans are quitting their jobs than being laid off.

The bump-up in “job quits” may be due to signs of a more robust U.S economy, with consumer confidence, unemployment and housing values all ahead of where they stood in April 2011.

But some economists aren’t so sure.

“Quits go hand-in-hand with consumer confidence and for the first time of the recovery, quits represent a greater percentage of total separations than do involuntary layoffs,” explains Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at ConvergEx Group, in a research note first published by CNBC’s Fast Money on Friday. “(But) careful analysis of February’s JOLTS data leaves us scratching our heads and hoping March was an anomaly.”

Maybe the great American worker knows something the eggheads in Washington and on Wall Street don’t. Or more likely, an increasing amount of Americans may have finally had enough of working longer hours for shorter pay, and are striking out on their own and setting up an office in the garage, or heading off to North Dakota and Western Pennsylvania to cash in on the shale oil boom.

Nobody really knows.

But economists and maybe even nervous employers will be keeping a close eye on next month’s JOLTS survey. Some of their best workers may, indirectly at least, be on it.

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