The most recent U.S. jobs report had a lot of good news about declining unemployment and growing job openings. One troubling point, though, is that many of the positions remain part-time.
Why is this bad? Partly because some people who’d rather work 40 hours a week are forced to make do with less or cobble together multiple jobs. But part-time jobs are also typically bad jobs in other ways: they often pay less per hour than full-time positions, offer few benefits, and simply don’t provide enough hours for a worker to get by.
None of this is a law of nature, though. Historically, the distinction between part-and full-time jobs was created by government moves—like setting 40 hours as the standard for overtime—and industry conventions—like denying certain benefits to part-time workers, who were presumed not to be family breadwinners.
In a 1994 issue of Social Service Review, Brandeis University researcher Hilda Kahne argued for a more thoughtful approach to part-time work.
Kahne notes that jobs offering less than full-time hours have grown. That’s partly due to changes in industry, including increased demands for flexibility and the shift from large-scale manufacturing to service-sector work. At the same time, increasing numbers of women have entered the workforce, and many of them want jobs that leave them more time for family responsibilities. The need for good part-time jobs is particularly acute among single mothers living at or near the poverty line who may be solely responsible for both caring for their children and supporting them financially.
Writing at a time when President Bill Clinton was moving plans for welfare reform forward, Kahne commends the idea of having the government pay welfare recipients to take part-time job-training courses. She argues that paid training programs could be extended to other workers as well. This could both help individuals to move into better-paying jobs and increase the productivity of the economy, in general, she writes.
Beyond that, Kahne argues for a restructuring of part-time jobs, perhaps with government support, to maximize flexibility for both workers and employers.
“The concept of variable hours, sometimes with business or government subsidy, offers would-be and participating labor force members a way both to respond to family needs and to acquire and enhance and redirect skills,” she writes. “It makes possible an opportunity to improve firm competitiveness and at the same time provide an escape from an enduring poverty-level income.”