With signs pointing toward an improving economy, can workers who lived through a beggars-can't-be-choosers job market expect a return to the days when excellent benefits were plentiful and employers pampered their most valued workers to keep them from straying?
Don't count on it — at least not anytime soon.
"We have not heard of anybody making a major shift in what they're paying people to keep them or to attract them to other companies," said Roger Lear, president of the Orlandojobs.com website of the Central Florida Human Resource Association. "More companies should be doing that," he added, citing reports that 60 percent to 70 percent of employees "are ready to jump ship as soon as more jobs open up."
University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith sees "a fairly muted job market" in 2012 with no surge in hiring, but enough growth for "smart companies" to start improving benefits for workers they want to keep on board.
"If companies continue to have their best and brightest workers with stagnant salaries and no additional perks, they run the risk of having a mass mutiny on their hands" when the economy turns the corner, Snaith said.
Florida's jobless rate fell to 10 percent in November — its lowest level since May 2009 — but workers are still keeping their expectations low.
Even the rare employee who has received a raise or other perks recently may feel insecure — such as an Orlando Health nurse who asked to remain anonymous over concern for her job. She was given a raise last spring.
"I think it ended up being about 3 percent," she said. "I haven't heard if we'll be getting one this year. I prefer to look on the bright side of things, but I'm hard-pressed to see it in the job environment in which I find myself."
The future looks brighter, if not blinding, from the Orlando and Lake Mary offices of Express Scripts, a national company specializing in prescription processing.
During the past three years, the company's local work force has inched upward.
"Our full-time employment in Orlando [including Lake Mary] on Dec. 31 was 1,503, compared to 1,376 a year earlier and 1,332 two years ago," said spokesman Thom Gross. "We expect to hire 60 to 80 call-center representatives this year just to cover attrition."
Some of the area's largest companies forecast a similar employment climate for 2012: the status quo with a chance of improvement. On a chart, any growth is more likely to resemble a gentle incline than a rocket launch.
"We don't see any drastic changes," said Ken Ross, spokesman for Lockheed Martin, with a work force of 7,000 in Central Florida.
Siemens Energy employs about 3,600 in Orlando and sees no erosion in that number. The company "expects to maintain a solid hiring practice through 2012, coming out of 2011 with over 100 open positions," spokeswoman Amy Pempel said.
Walt Disney World, Central Florida's largest employer, did not provide specific numbers. But the company plans to hire "thousands" for the opening this year of Disney's Art of Animation Resort and expansion of Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom, said spokesman Bryan Malenius. The Fantasyland project also is creating jobs for construction workers in the area, he added.
The homebuilding industry remains in a state of suspended animation, but the experience of a leading commercial builder in Orlando may provide hope of a coming thaw. Hardin Construction, headquartered in Atlanta, has a regional office in Orlando with a work force of about 70 — 15 percent smaller than before the economy was deconstructed by recession.
"We delayed the layoffs as long as we possibly could," said Ed Hanratty, general manager in the Orlando office. "There were salary reductions so we could maintain as many staff as possible. We're not where we were four or five years ago, but things are turning around. In 2011 we saw architects and designers getting business again — dusting off plans that were on the shelf. That's where it starts for us. We had several large projects start up in 2011 and hired back some people. If things turn out the way we're planning now, we'll continue to do selective hiring this year."
Lear of Orlandojobs.com can see it coming: "We had a job fair at the Amway Arena in November with 65 companies and 3,600 openings. We wouldn't even have been able to have a career fair two or three years ago. Even this year, we had to beg a lot of them to come."
Though the total number of jobs may not rise dramatically, Lear said, he expects more worker movement among companies — partly in reaction to workplace conditions.
"With all the layoffs, you find employees doing the work of two people, and it's getting to the point where they're tired of it," he said. "A lot of people are sitting in jobs, waiting to jump, no question about that."