The unemployment rate in the United States fell to 7.8% in September, the Department of Labor reported on Friday, the lowest since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, as employers took on more part-time workers. But a new Mercer survey indicates that as employers get their workforces onto more solid ground, employee engagement is becoming a key concern.

The economy added 114,000 workers last month after a revised 142,000 gain in August that was more than initially estimated. The median estimate of 92 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for an advance of 115,000. The jobless rate dropped from 8.1% and hourly earnings climbed more than forecast.

“The job market is healing,” says Ryan Sweet, senior economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc. in West Chester, Pa., who forecast payrolls would rise by 115,000. “If the job market holds together, the economy is in for a decent fourth quarter.”

The trend could well continueAccording to Mercer’s 2012 Attraction and Retention Survey, more than 40% of organizations are expanding their overall workforce in 2012, compared to just 27% in 2010. Moreover, fewer organizations today than two years ago are making selected reductions to their workforce (16% versus 25%, respectively). Yet despite this positive news, almost twice as many organizations today are reporting reduced levels of employee engagement compared to two years ago (24% versus 13%, respectively).

“Employee loyalty has been eroding the past few years due to companies’ responses to the economic downturn,” says Mercer’s Loree Griffith. “Actions like layoffs, pay freezes and limited training opportunities have created an evolving employment deal for employees due to uncertainty about what is expected and how employees will be rewarded. Meanwhile, firms are still aggressively managing people costs while finding ways to re-energize and re-motivate engaged employees.”

Turnover is another factor contributing to the attention employers are placing on employee engagement. Almost 60% of participating organizations are anticipating increases in voluntary turnover as the job market and economy continue to improve.

According to Mercer’s survey, merit increases are back, with the large majority (95%) of organizations providing some form of increase for 2012.

However, as in 2010, organizations today are continuing to enhance the use of non-cash rewards to drive employee retention and engagement, particularly during times of limited merit budgets.

The most prevalent non-cash reward programs implemented by organizations over the past 18 months include: communicating total reward value to employees (offered more by 25% of participating organizations), use of social media to boost the employee work experience (25%), formalized career paths (22%), internal/external training (22%) and special recognition (22%).

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