Talent Management Column Happened to Part-time Work?

At least a couple of factors may be behind the emergence of unpredictable work schedules, a trend that's understandably taking a toll on today's sizable part-time workforce.

Monday, August 11, 2014
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Those of us who have the time to read the newspapers have noticed a spate of stories lately about part-time work and the apparent irregularity of schedules for those who work in those jobs. Legislation in the Senate has been proposed to address the costs of that irregularity for part-time workers.  

The stories report on employees whose work days have shrunk from eight hours a couple of days a week to a couple of hours a day here and there, but the big change seems to be that the workers have no certainty about when they are supposed to work. Often, they are required to always be on call, available to show up at work within a matter of hours. Sometimes, they are required to show up for work and then find out whether there is actually anything for them to do that day.

About one in five people with jobs in the United States now work part-time, and the number of part-time jobs has not been declining very quickly as the economy emerges from the recession.  

There are about three times as many part-time workers who have that arrangement by choice, compared to those who want full-time work but can't find it. The number in the latter category is still twice as high as it was before the Great Recession, which is why some think that this high level of part-time work is part of a "new normal" in the post-recession workplace.

The apparent irregularity of part-time work has a particularly bad "bite" for those who have chosen part-time work, because, presumably, they have other important things to do with their time, which is the reason they are working part-time in the first place.

One of the most important of these things to do is going to school. A majority of U.S. college students are working part-time, and depending on the definitions used -- the figure could be as high as 80 percent.  College classes have predictable schedules, and students really are supposed to be there. If your part-time work schedule is irregular -- even worse, unpredictable -- then it is virtually impossible to both work and go to college. Pretty much all students who are working while going to school have to work to pay the bills or else they could not go to college, so unpredictable part-time work schedules make it impossible for them to work and go to college.

The same problem applies to those who are working part-time because of child care or other family-care needs. If your work schedule is unpredictable, it usually makes it impossible to perform those family duties -- kids can't be picked up after school and/or elderly relatives can't be fed if the part-time worker is called into work at the last minute.

Let's be clear that, so far, we don't know with any certainty how extensive these irregular schedules are. But there is a sense that they are a lot more common these days. I don't recall hearing any stories like this in earlier decades. It used to be that part-time schedules were pretty regular - working a weekend shift in service industries, stepping in for workers who are on vacation and so forth.

What happened?

The idea seems to be that the irregular part-time schedules are needed to accommodate variations in customer demands.

Every industrial-engineering class explains how to schedule workers in an efficient manner. Slightly more sophisticated programs do forecasts to predict how demand will vary day by day. All that can be done long before workers have to be told what their schedules will be.  

It seems as though there are two opposite developments under way: The first is that managers may not know what they are doing, and the second is that the forecasting tools may be actually pushing toward shorter notice to employees.

One clue comes from the stories about where the irregular schedules occur. It is almost always in retail or fast food. I think one trend has actually been a dumbing down of the sophistication of the scheduling process. Small employers may have no idea how to do sophisticated scheduling. We've decentralized operations in larger organizations down to the local level where they are then on their own to create schedules together without any sophisticated help.  As long as you can get workers to remain constantly on call, there is no need to schedule: Just call them in as demand develops, just-in-time.

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At the other end of the spectrum are some new, hyper-sophisticated forecasting tools used by some big retail employers that claim to predict hourly variations in demand based on attributes such as the weather. (Of course, if we wait to see what the weather is like today before we do our schedule for today, we aren't really forecasting at all.) Whether these systems actually do a better job of predicting demand in advance (which is the point) isn't clear, although shorter-term forecasts are, by definition, more accurate. In any case, the consequence of shorter-term forecasts is less predictability in schedules.

A final driver cited by some industry insiders is that workers on short shifts simply work harder per hour than those on long shifts: Two workers coming in for two-hour shifts may work harder than one worker on a four-hour shift, or so the argument goes. Again, we don't know whether this is actually true or just an assumption. I suppose per se it doesn't make shifts less predictable.  Just makes them even shorter.

The common factor here is for employers to push the business problem - in this case, managing uncertainty -- onto the part-time workers. It isn't clear whether it actually solves the business problem and whether it's necessary, but it is clear that the move to unpredictable work schedules is incredibly costly to most of the part-time workforce. Is this happening just because it is simpler for the managers and because there is no ability for employees to push back? 


Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School. His latest book is Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It.

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