Nine weeks ago, a surprise offer persuaded Rachel Swan of Minneapolis to ignore the economic downturn and follow her heart.

She left her steady administrative gig at Capella University to become the manager at the new Pizzeria Lola in Minneapolis.

"That truly was a leap from the gut," said Swan, a restaurant lover who admits she moved to "what some consider a high-risk business. But I think there is a payoff. I really love my new job."

For the first time in three years, several national employment firms and search agencies are reporting that a rising number of employees, like Swan, are voluntarily bolting for the doors to test their fate with new employers who promise less stress, higher wages or at least a fresh start and a little fun.

After a long hibernation, employee turnover is creeping back.

"People are burned out. So they are apt to listen to new job opportunities. We have seen quite a bit of turnover lately where employers are losing their good people," said Jennifer Carlson, a division director who hires contractors for clients of the global staffing firm Robert Half International.

Workers stayed in jobs during the worst recession in 70 years, not trusting the stability of new job offers. The potential threat of being "last hired, first fired," was real.

But slowly, more accountants, managers, secretaries, software pros and financial analysts feel confident enough in the recovery to take a voluntary leap.

Twin Cities IT analyst Christina Meier became "fed up" with challenges at her old job and started to look around.

"Once I decided to spend the effort to update my résumé and search for something new, there was no turning back," said Meier, who last week decided to leave accounting firm LarsonAllen for a job at General Mills.

As for Swan, she's equally excited about the future. At her old employer, Capella University, friends were being shown the door. Capella laid off her old boss as part of a surprise reorganization just 10 days after Swan resigned.

Searching for careers

Many people laid off early during the recession quickly snapped up any replacement job that paid the bills.

"People took jobs that they were not thinking of as a career," said Kathy Carney, who manages the Minneapolis Workforce Center, a state-run service for job seekers. "They took it just to start working again, to feel better about themselves and to get money."

Now, more people are looking for careers -- often with a new employer.

"We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people willing to look outside their company for jobs. In fact, March was our best month ever," said Sean Keating, founder of Oggi Professional Search in Minnetonka, which finds accounting, finance and administrative workers for 3M, Starkey Labs, Pentair Co. and others.

Each week, Keating approaches some 125 people about changing jobs. A year ago, two out of three were unreceptive. "They were just in a hunker- down mentality," he said. Today, two of three will consider a job change, and employed professionals are now calling him.

Finance and accounting workers are more receptive to phone calls about new job opportunities, said Steve Kenney, who oversees permanent placements for Robert Half. Before, turnover was frozen by workers' concerns about "the devil you know versus the devil you don't."

Mary Younggren, owner of Advent Creative Group in Edina, said 30 percent of her business now involves placing existing workers in new jobs in human resources, marketing, design, and accounting.

"A year ago it was maybe zero," said Younggren, past president of the Minnesota Recruiting and Staffing Association.

Surveys show shifts

One survey of 1,400 workers by Right Management Inc., a recruiter based in Philadelphia, found that 84 percent planned to look for jobs in 2011, up from 60 percent last year. In a look at the reasons why workers apply for jobs elsewhere, a Robert Half survey last year found that four out of 10 workers said it was because of pay or benefit cuts.

Competition for workers is heating up. Of the 18,000 U.S. employers surveyed by Manpower Inc., 16 percent planned to add staff in the second quarter of 2011. Some 6 percent expect layoffs. In the Twin Cities, 13 percent plan to add staff while 6 percent expect layoffs.

About 13.5 million Americans remain unemployed, despite the U.S. jobless rate falling to 8.8 percent for the first time in 22 months. Minnesota's rate fell to 6.6 percent in March, and the state's 12-month job-growth rate is now 0.8 percent.

Experts warn that voluntary turnover is far below prerecession levels and varies widely by industry. For example, turnover hasn't hit manufacturing to any noticeable level.

"Certainly, there is anxiety that [factory] workers might get other offers with the economy improving ... but I haven't heard that it's occurring yet," said Nate Duoss, spokesman for the manufacturing assistance firm Enterprise Minnesota.

Fred Zimmerman, retired professor of manufacturing and management at the University of St. Thomas, said factory workers are uncomfortable leaving companies perceived to be stable. Those who survived the recession often "are a carefully retained and picked-over group," he said.

"Most of these survivors are grateful to have been employed during troubled times, and this gratitude may reduce their propensities to seek work elsewhere," Zimmerman said.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725