The Rise of the Part-Time Worker in America

Over the past several years, there has been a significant shift in worker status in the U.S., as employers (particularly in the hospitality and retail industries) continue to seek to cut costs in today’s challenging economy. According to the Managing Director at retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group, Burt P. Flickinger III, worker statuses in the retail industry have dropped from 70 to 80 percent full-time workers two decades ago to at least 70 percent part-time today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statists, in the retail and wholesale sector employers have cut a million full-time jobs since 2006 while adding a half million part-time positions. At the same time, the number of part-time workers who would prefer a full-time position has jumped to 3.1 million (2.5 times the 2006 level).

Beyond the state of the current economy, there are several key drivers to this. One is the overall growth of the independent workforce (and thus small business owners), which according to the 2012 MBO Partners Independent Workforce Index has increased this year 5.5 percent over 2011. Second is a growing strategic focus on the part of small business owners to align their staffing allotment to projected customer traffic. Employing a majority of part-time workers who aren’t guaranteed hours gives them the flexibility they need to streamline and cut overhead in this way. Third is the growth of technology and sophisticated software that has enabled both the tracking of customer flow and the complex and ever evolving scheduling of employees. Here the manufacturing principle of “just in time” is applied to employee scheduling, thereby reducing costs and increasing efficiency.

What this looks like in the workplace itself is a highly variable schedule that can change from day to day. Eight hour shifts are no longer the norm, as some employers are going as far as scheduling two or three hour work blocks. Workers are asked to come into work at the last minute, and unavailability or a lack of flexibility can in some cases cause them to lose additional shifts down the road to someone else who has been more accommodating to the business’s immediate needs.

This has all translated to tougher times for the vast majority of part-time employees. Part-time workers are forced into increasingly competitive environments where they must vie with coworkers for hours and shifts. In times of scarcity, where available hours are particularly slim, many workers struggle to get by. And the unpredictability of the scheduling makes it difficult for workers to find childcare, attend classes to further their education, or even hold a second job.

References:

Greenhouse, Steven. “A Part-Time Life, as Hours Shrink and ShiftNew York Times. 10/27/12.

MBO Partners. “Second Annual: The State of Independence in America Report” September 2012.

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