Part-time work is undergoing a quiet transformation, gaining a more polished image in the process.
Once confined primarily to entry-level or hourly-wage positions – retail, clerical, fast-food – it is also slowly becoming the province of professionals, as more parents, retirees, and young people seek flexible schedules.
More than 25 million people hold part-time positions in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Yet demand for higher-level part-time jobs still outstrips supply as many employers remain wary of alternatives to the 40-hour week.
"We have 16,000 people in our database," says Liz Norwood, cofounder of 10 til 2, a placement service that specializes in part-time professional jobs. "Unfortunately, we don't have 16,000 jobs."
Although her database, like those of similar placement agencies, includes men, it is women with children who are leading the charge in demanding good part-time jobs.
"Our typical candidate is a mom who wants a little more flexibility and balance," says Ms. Norwood, of Denver. "She wants to put her child on the bus in the morning, work several hours, and meet her child's bus in the afternoon."
That work can range from administrative positions to those in IT, sales support, graphic design, engineering, law, and finance. Most positions involve working four to 30 hours a week, Norwood says.
Kathi Tabrizi, now managing director of Part-time Professionals, a placement firm in Orange County, Calif., earlier parlayed a full-time position at Coca-Cola into part-time work after her twin daughters were born. "A lot of companies use it as a strategy to retain valuable employees," she says. Some businesses also allow job-sharing, in which two people split a full-time job, although that remains a scarce option.
Also scarce are good part-time jobs for older workers. "The need for part-time positions is becoming more acute because we have so many retirees now," says Robert Trumble, director of the Virginia Labor Studies Center at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "It can be very difficult to get a good part-time job. Make sure you have it in hand before you retire."
This month, AARP and RetirementJobs.com began an online collaboration at aarp.org/jobs to help age 50-plus workers search for jobs from age-friendly employers. Workers in this age group account for 28 percent of the workforce.
Satisfying part-time jobs also represent a goal for many in Gen-Y. "They value personal time a lot higher than baby boomers do," says Joe Kilmartin, managing director of compensation consulting at Salary.com.
Martine Syms, a part-time employee for a Web design and online marketing firm in Chicago, knew when she graduated from college last year that she did not want a full-time job. "I value flexibility over money," she says. "The majority of my friends who took on salaried positions are in no better shape than I am."
Yet challenges – and trade-offs – remain. On average, only a quarter of firms offer healthcare benefits to part-time employees, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And just one-third of part-time employees in the private sector have access to retirement benefits, the BLS reports.
In addition, part-time workers with young children and aging parents can face what is called family-responsibilities discrimination, says Cynthia Calvert, deputy director of the Center for WorkLifeLaw at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
"Often when people request a reduction in their schedule it triggers assumptions that they won't be as effective," Ms. Calvert says. "Supervisors will say, 'I don't want a part-timer working for me.' It used to be fairly difficult for employees to sue employers for matters related to flexible work scheduling or reduced hours. We're starting to see some plaintiffs becoming more successful."
In the past decade, the number of part-time jobs at all levels has increased nearly 10 percent, according to the BLS. But not everyone working reduced hours does so by choice. The number of people involuntarily working part-time has risen to 5 million, the Economic Policy Institute reports.
Even so, some employers resist part-time work. "It requires more effort and more planning on the part of management," Mr. Trumble says. Trying to change the corporate culture in large firms is hard, Tabrizi finds, adding, "Smaller businesses are definitely more open-minded in their policies."
Many people mistakenly think of part-time positions at all levels as temporary. Manpower, one of the nation's largest employers of temps, handles some part-time jobs, but many temp agencies do not.
Employment specialists advise those seeking part-time positions to think creatively. Ms. Tabrizi notes that someone who is currently working could outline a specific plan for turning that full-time job into a part-time one. Including well-defined goals is essential. For those with a corporate background who are not currently employed, she suggests turning to former clients as possible resources for part-time employment or consulting.
Too often, Mr. Kilmartin finds, prospective employees limit themselves by looking only for job listings that say part-time, rather than for those that best suit them. Talk to the hiring manager and propose part-time work, he says, adding, "If I were hiring, and an ace candidate came in and wanted to work 20 hours, I'd be foolish to turn that candidate down."
Calling this an evolving issue, Kilmartin says, "You'll see a lot more organizations having to adjust their hiring practices."
Calvert notes similar progress. "The climate for part-time right now is so much better than it was 10 years ago," she says. "There is a real awakening among employers that they need to offer meaningful flexible work options for employees if they want to attract the best talent and hang on to them. The situation is getting better, but there's still a lot of work to do out there."