Job sharing: a flexible solution

A graduate student wants part-time work that will allow her to use what she is learning, rather than merely give her pocket money. A 50-year-old engineer would like a job that won't take him away from his family too often. A travel agency has a young mother working three days a week, but they want help five days.

All of these work needs were solved through job sharing, a system of filling one full-time position with two or more persons who share hours, duties, salaries, and sometimes benefits.

Willie Heller of New Ways to Work, a non-profit group in San Francisco, sees job sharing catching hold because many Americans today take a different attitude about what they want out of work and life.

"People used to feel they needed to plug into the one person, one job routine ," she says. "That's changing. Many people want to nuture their family andm have a career."

She admits there is a trade-off: Workers will make less money. But she maintains that many people are willing to live with the idea of suffiency rather than affluence.

"If two people are working in a family, in general they don't need two full salaries. They can get by on a salary and a half."

Although cases of job sharing are still isolated, it is being taken seriously enough that a nationwide network of job sharing resource groups is being formed. And several states have passed legislation which encourages job sharing in state agencies.

Willie Heller estimates that only 1 percent of the working population would choose job sharing if given the option. But she sees it as an attractive choice to people at certain times in their lives.

The majority of job sharers are women with other responsibilities such as children. Some are men and women who want a part-time career. Retired men and women are a growing group of job sharers.

Students find job sharing a good way to gain both income and work experience.

Job sharing first caught on in the educational field in the late 1960s and early '70s. In 1970 Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., hired a married couple for a single appointment in the natural science department. The college now has a second couple who share a teaching job and a house-parent position. Salaries are split and benefits prorated.

"We're getting two for the price of one with these couples," says Robert Fox, director of personnel at the college. "We get their individual skills, methods, and strengths." Some couples like this arrangement because it allows time for their families and outside activities. Others use this option while waiting for other jobs to open at the same institution.

Workers generally initiate job sharing on their own as an answer to an employment problem. Anne Johnson of Bellevue, Wash., decided to take a leave of absence from her travel agency job when her son was born. As the time approached when she was supposed to work full-time again, she had second thoughts.

"I was having so much fun with Cameron," she says. "I wanted to stay home with him." But she also wanted to work.After talking with another mother who was looking for part-time work, Mrs. Johnson decided to approach her office manager with the idea of job sharing.

"Now I work three days a week, and she works two," Mrs. Johnson says. "I use some of the money to pay for day care and a cleaning woman. The rest is used for extras. Right now I am saving money for our dining room and the boat payment."

She scoffs at people who think no one else can do his or her job.

"That's a myth," she says. "It's silly to think no one else could step in and fill your shoes. What happens when you go on vacation, leave of absence, or quit a job?"

Although women have the bulk of shared jobs, men are discovering the option. San Francisco's Willie Heller tells of two engineers in Sacramento, Calif., who share a job.

"They are both married for the second time, their first marriages having broken up in part because of jobs that required a lot of travel," Ms. Heller says. "They said they didn't want to tear through these marriages. Now they work alternate months."

Students have discovered the practicality of job sharing. Ingeborg Hegemann is studying regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She needs part-time work to help with school expenses. She shares a planning job with a fellow student who had worked for the firm during the summer.

"This is great direct experience," Miss Hegemann says. "I'm still learning, and I don't pretend I'm not. But many graduate students just get drafting jobs, and this is actual planning."

Job sharing is accepted in places such as California, where municipal governments use it, and Maryland and Oregon, where legislation was passed to encourage job sharing positions.

Micro Switch, Division of Honeywell, Inc. in Marlborough, Mass., often hires two workers for one job on the assembly line, allowing part-time work. Most of these workers are mothers who want to be home when their children are there.

"It's been successful," says Louise Hale, personnel manager. "We get dependable workers who live in the locality and are so happy to work. They can be at home to send their children to school and be back to give them cookies."

Job sharing does have its detractors. Some employers report there is not enough interest in job sharing. Others have complained of a high turnover rate among job sharers. And some workers get a bad bargain when a company hires two persons for the price of one, and doesn't give any benefits.

There are resource groups in many major cities that work with both employers and potential employees to make job sharing more accepted. Job Sharers works in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Seattle has a group called Focus on Part- time Careers. Work Options Unlimited is just getting started in Boston. New Ways to Work in San Francisco is organizing these groups into a national network.

Such groups often find their biggest challenge is to convince employers of the benefits of shared jobs.

"Employers are willing to try job sharing one position at a time, but they are afraid to accept it widespread," says Carol Parker of Job Sharers. "They are not sure how to manage two people. They worry about increased costs of benefits. We point out that when they prorate them, it doesn't increase."

Job sharing is usually the answer to some employer's problem, Mrs. Parker likes to point out. "It can help handle high turnover, a lack of trained personnel, or an extension of service hours, such as for East Coast firms that have West Coast clients."

The National Council for Alternative Work Patterns Inc., 1925 K Street, NW, Suite 308A, Washington, D.C. 20006, has an alternative work schedule directory that lists 28 firms with job sharing opportunities.

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