For employees who held onto jobs during corporate downsizing, shouldering more work without complaint became business as usual. Many were grateful to be employed while others around them were felled by layoffs. That was then. As the economy improves, the overworked wonder if they can strike a better deal elsewhere.

In a poll of 1,400 people at the end of 2010, some 84 percent of respondents said they plan to actively look for a new job in 2011, up from 60 percent the preceding year. Just five percent said they’d stick with their current job according to the survey by Manpower subsidiary Right Management, Philadelphia.

And headhunters are on the prowl for the discontented. If workers can stomach it, now is the time to jump companies, especially if the prospects of a raise or promotion from your current employer are slim, says Melissa Cappas Masse, a principal and general manager at the Waltham, Mass.-based staffing firm Winter, Wyman.

While the number of unemployed workers vying for the same jobs means there’s more competition, it’s not necessarily stiffer competition, she says. Indeed, the fact that so many who apply for a job are out of work can give a fully employed candidate an advantage.

“Companies often prefer passive candidates who are still working,” Masse says. “Someone without employment gaps looks more attractive to them.”

Just by virtue of your employment status, your résumé might advance past the weeding-out process because you’re demonstrably wanted. “There’s almost a desirability to it,” Masse says.

Someone who has kept a job through serial downsizing is assumed to be a valued top performer, she adds. And to companies looking to rebuild, being steadily employed suggests you’re stable and loyal, and therefore likelier to provide a return on investment should you be hired.

Fairly or not, hiring authorities make assumptions about people who are out of work for more than a few months. Either they aren’t trying hard enough or they don’t have what it takes, says Jordan Rayboy, CEO of Rayboy Insider Search headquartered in Davie, Fla.

In good times and bad, “Employers would always rather hire an A player,” he says.

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