The two-year recession that helped tag the decade just past as the “uh-ohs” caused a lot of changes in the US economy -- including a wholesale shift toward part-time work as a way to ease financial pressures for both workers and employers.
As of August 2010, 8.9 million people were working part time when they would have preferred full-time work -- about twice as many as in January 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
About 70 percent of those involuntary part-time workers are full-time workers whose hours had been reduced due to business conditions, while the rest could find only part-time work, according to the BLS.
The question for many workers -- whether laid off or long-term underemployed for the first time since they were teenagers -- is how to put together part-time work that really works. That is, how to work enough to cover the biggest expenses without spending so much time on go-nowhere work that they neglect their job searches and risk missing out on full-time jobs that could make them financially whole again.
Contract to Keep Your Career on Track
The first thing to remember, even if you’ve been laid off and are trying to put together short-term gigs, is that you don’t have to walk away from your career and get a job bagging groceries, according to Art Romero, CEO and managing director at The Academy Group, a Denver recruiting agency specializing in sales positions in financial services.
“The first thing I’d do is go to the customers you worked with when you were still employed and offer to do the same kind of work for them on a contract basis,” Romero says. “If you were an engineer … you probably worked with other companies and built relationships with people there. Call and see about going back as a contractor.”
In addition to offering your services to your former clients, look into getting work from former colleagues -- whether at the company that just laid you off or the companies where former coworkers now work, Romero says.
“A lot of the hiring has gone electronic, but the personal network is still there and still works the way it always did,” he said. “You can get contract or short-term work that way just as well as referrals or pointers for full-time work.”
You could also gather former colleagues or current networking contacts into an ad hoc company that can take on larger challenges than one person could manage alone, says Lynn Hazan of Lynn Hazan & Associates, a Chicago executive search firm that specializes in marketing and communications.
“I’ll tell people that if they can connect with other people with different skills -- marketing, sales, legal, technical -- you can put together a project team for contracts, and maybe turn that into a business on its own,” she says.
Another strategy would be to use part-time work to transition to the next stage of your career, says Lynn Berger, a career counselor and author of The Savvy Part-Time Professional: How to Land, Create or Negotiate the Part-Time Job of Your Dreams. That could mean using short-term work to try out jobs or industries you’ve always wanted to try, or taking advantage of your experience and skills by seeking contract work from companies you wouldn’t have thought of working with before, she says.
Balancing Short-Term Necessities with Long-Term Goals
However, starting a business or relaunching your career may not be practical for people whose real goal is to balance work that pays the bills with job searches and networking that can put their careers back on track, says Sally Haver, senior vice president of business development at The Ayers Group/Career Partners International, a New York City-based firm specializing in career transitions and outplacement.
“The problem with mid-career changes even in good economies is that reality intervenes [such as] mortgages [and] kids in college,” Haver says.
To bring in some income without losing too much ground in your career, balance the time you spend on part-time or contract work -- which involves not only doing the work, but also finding it -- with job searches that meet your longer-term career goals. Figure out how much you have to work to keep solvent, and spend the bulk of your time on networking, training and other long-term job-hunting activities.
It may be hard to pass up a few hours of paying work for a better job later, Haver says. But ultimately, that is the only way to get yourself out of the position of having to decide whether it’s better to spend time working for your future or paying for your present.
Learn more about part-time careers.