Working part time may become the norm Government policies, trends in jobs, changing lifestyles can make it a win-win idea

November 23, 1997|By Michael Moses and Praveen Nayyar

Early in the next millennium, part-time work will likely be the norm in the United States rather than the exception. If properly planned, part-time employment can be a win-win proposition for employers and employees.

About 20 percent of today's workers hold a part-time job, but trends will cause that share to increase for both white-collar and blue-collar employment. Several reasons exist for the shift, including continued growth in the service component of our economy.

Meanwhile, demand patterns will remain highly individual and variable, the pressures of worldwide competition will increase and Americans will continue to demand individual lifestyle choices.

Lastly, government efforts to reduce unemployment around the world will encourage part-time work.

Understanding and adjusting to this phenomenon will be crucial in the first quarter of the new century. Decisions could well mean the difference between a happy and unhappy populous.

The United States has moved and is continuing to move to a service economy. This trend will almost certainly not change.

A defining difference between service and manufacturing is the inability of a service organization to inventory the act of service.

If the demands at New York's George Washington Bridge or the San Francisco Bay Bridge were constant over the course of a day, each bridge would need only one deck. However, commuters cannot be inventoried like air conditioners. Second decks and additional toll-takers are needed to handle peak traffic.

Responding to peaks in a service business requires additional capacity in some form.

This capacity can be capital, such as extra lanes on a bridge, or human, such as adding early morning sorters at United Parcel Service (one of the issues in the recent strike).

Peaks also can be seasonal. Tax preparation, crop harvesting and holiday travel are obvious examples.

Storefront tax offices such as those run by H&R Block use part-time, free-lance accountants. Migrant workers historically have satisfied farm requirements.

Companies providing holiday travel try to level demand by price mechanisms but, unfortunately, this is a far-from-perfect solution. Going to grandma's for Thanksgiving is close to immutable.

Hiring someone for a full day when only a half-day of work is required raises costs substantially and contributes to inflation. It leads to noncompetitiveness, not just domestically but in the new globalized markets.

Featherbedding played a major role in throttling the railroad system in this country. In a global marketplace, it will prove equally fatal to any organization.

Computer hardware and software companies handle the majority customer questions between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. But glitches, as many of us know from personal experience, have little respect for the hours designated even by titans such as Microsoft and IBM.

The alternative to part-time domestic employment is to hire full-time employees at substantially lower wages in nations an appropriate number of time zones away.

This explains why some computer companies have more brogues at the end of technical support phone lines than can be heard in an Irish pub on St. Patrick's Day.

Companies employing offshore help for off-peak demand may soon transfer their prime-time work load as well, resulting in a loss of high-tech employment in the United States.

Part-time work will increase as Americans choose nay, demand individual lifestyle choices.

Involuntary part-time workers account for no more than 3 to 5 percent of the work force. The majority of part-time workers limit their hours by choice. Children, crafts, hobbies, second jobs and so forth have a siren call for many.

The United States is not the only country where part-time work has increased. European Union countries have seen a sharp rise. About 38 percent of the workers in Holland and 24 percent in the United Kingdom are employed part-time.

The Economist noted recently that unemployment rates in the United Kingdom and Holland are 5 percent to 6 percent, half the Common Market average. The magazine urged European governments to scrap obstructions to part-time work as counterproductive.

A growth in part-time work seems unavoidable. We should try to level demand as much as possible, but it is more important to change attitudes.

Why not allow individuals to choose the month they want to pay their taxes? Stagger school years? Other tasks can be altered to level demand, but such changes probably will be at the margin because service cannot be warehoused.

We should not assume that holding a part-time job or two part-time jobs is negative. Governments and unions should not make the cost of two part-time workers more than one full-time worker.

And employers should not hire part-time workers because they are cheap but because it is the efficient way to get a job done.

Wages and benefits must be compatible to full-time levels.

Multiple part-time employees give an organization a larger pool of trained individuals to draw on at peaks and in emergencies. They provide a reservoir of replacement talent for openings in the full-time work force.

This worker pool should be considered a strategic asset and might be compensated when not being called upon. The compensation would reward upgrading of skills and availability.

Part-time work may be the norm as soon as 2020. It has the potential to make a significant contribution to the good life for all.

Individuals may be able to tailor their work, family obligations and leisure. Companies can restrain prices and create more opportunities.

Michael Moses and Praveen Nayyar are chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Operations Management Area for the Stern School of Business at New York University. This article was distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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