How to Be a Smart Job-Hopper

If you’ve changed jobs frequently, be ready to explain those transitions to a potential employer.

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For anyone who's felt stuck in a job during the recession, this looks to be the year for making a change. Nearly a third of Americans say they're planning to look for a new job this year, according to a survey by staffing firm Adecco. And some surveys put that number even higher.

That's partly because of a slight improvement in the job market, which gives unhappy employees a renewed sense of optimism about finding a better position. But job-hopping has also become a natural part of the career landscape, particularly for younger workers. Unlike boomers, who tended to stay with one company for their entire career, Generations X (now in their thirties and forties) and Y (twentysomethings) are more apt to jump from job to job, or at least look around for more appealing opportunities. Doing this well, career experts say, requires framing past transitions in a way that benefits your potential next employer.

"People right now, more so than in the past, are really managing their careers, and not necessarily putting company [as] number one," says Geoff Hoffmann, chief operating officer of DHR International, an executive search firm. "People are really looking out for themselves. They realize there's nothing standing in the way of the employer cutting them or eliminating their position, so they don't feel a huge sense of loyalty to the employer."

Having full-time experience with more than two companies can be an asset for a job seeker, but it can also raise a red flag, signalling to a potential employer that you're likely to jump ship after a year or two. While expectations vary by industry, your ability to explain your past transitions will affect your success in the job market, career experts say. Be prepared to tell a hiring manager how each move benefited you professionally.

[See 14 Secrets to Career Change Success.]

"The job seeker needs to be able to justify [moving from company to company] in a way that makes sense," says Larry Johnson, a workplace consultant who authored Generations, Inc., a book about managing friction between generations at work. Alternatively, if all of your experience is with one company, you'll need to shed positive light on that, too. "If you've got 20 years at the same organization," he says, "[make sure you can] parse it out and give the different projects and experiences you were involved in and the different ways that you contributed."

Pam Lassiter, career coach and author of The New Job Security, says if you have several companies on your resume, you should walk into the interview knowing how you'll convince the hiring manager that you're planning to stick around for a while. "If they ask the question about turnover," she says, "why are they any different [than other companies you worked for]?"

One reason job-hopping has become more common is because it's increasingly easy for individuals to market themselves with free online tools, says Hoffmann. If you're looking for a new opportunity, you may be able to create one rather than wait for that job to come to you.

[See How Job Seekers Can Build Their Online Brand.]

So how long must you stay at a company to keep your resume from screaming "job-hopper?" Early in your career, two years with an employer is long enough, Lassiter says. But you can only pull that off once or twice before recruiters want to see a longer stay. "The expectations increase as you get older," she says. If you're mid-career, shoot for at least four years with a company before making a transition.

But those aren't hard-and-fast rules; standards vary according to industry. For example, employees in the technology field often change firms, Hoffmann says, partly because the skill sets required for technology jobs evolve so rapidly. In fields like accounting, employees are expected to stay longer with one firm, says economist Neil Howe, author of Millennials in the Workplace.

Howe says the newest generation of workers would actually prefer to stay with one employer for their entire career, but few find a company that lives up to their expectations. "Kids would love one employer, the perfect employer, that would take care of everything for them," he says. "Of course, they like a lot of variety on the job, but it would be great if they could have one big employer who could allow them to rotate laterally into a lot of different kinds of jobs and develop a lot of different kinds of experiences."