Quitting time on Wall Street

March 8, 2011, 9:29 PM UTC

The adage that quitters never win is not exactly weighing on Wall Street lately.

The number of employees in the finance and insurance segment who quit last year jumped 32% from a year ago to 787,000, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The jump in the quit rate raises the prospect that departures will “keep Wall Street firms scrambling,” says Constance Melrose of jobs site eFinancial Careers.

Down for the count?

That would be tragic indeed, as it comes at a time when big banks such as JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Goldman Sachs (GS) have been adding staff in a bid to build up new businesses before the competition gets there. All the big banks complained in 2010 about rising costs and their tendency to dampen already soggy returns.

Rising staffing needs and increasing pressure on bonus policies could give the banks a handy excuse to keep raising workers’ base pay. That shift is already taking place at the biggest banks, even though some of the happy raise recipients have questioned the idea.

That said, quits remain well below their 2007 peak, and turnover in finance and insurance jobs hasn’t much changed.

Over the past decade, between a quarter and a third of all jobs in the industry have turned over in a given year, with about twice as many workers quitting in a typical year as are fired. Those trends reasserted themselves last year, after a surge in firings and a plunge in quits during the economic free fall year of 2009.

And of course there is a question about what some of the current job hunters might bring to the table, assuming there is some link between pay and performance. Melrose notes that a third of those surveyed by her firm were unhappy with their 2010 bonus, and that two-thirds of those whose bonus declined were unhappy.

If anything, that number seems low. Who gets a smaller bonus and jumps for joy, you might ask?

Maybe someone who sees the alternative as finding a new job at a time when they aren’t growing on trees. Finance industry employment dropped for the fourth straight year, BLS stats show.

Over that time, the industry has shed almost 500,000 jobs – leaving finance sector employment 2% below its level a decade ago. Keeping a seat on the gravy train is not getting any easier.

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