By Ellie Terry
There seems to be mounting evidence that at least part of the elevated share of part-time employment in the economy is here to stay. We have some insights to offer based on a recent survey of our business contacts.
Why are we interested? A higher part-time share of employment isn't necessarily a bad thing, if people are doing so voluntarily. Unfortunately, the elevated share is concentrated among people who would prefer to be working full-time. Using the average rate of decline over the past five years, the part-time for economic reasons (PTER) share of employment is projected to reach its prerecession average in about 10 years.
This is significantly slower than the decline in the unemployment rate, whose trajectory suggests a much sooner arrival-in around a year. The deviation raises an important policy question for measuring the amount of slack there is beyond what the unemployment rate suggests, and ultimately the extent to which policy can effectively reduce it.
What are the drivers? Data versus anecdotes
Researchers (here, here, and here) have pointed to factors such as industry shifts in the economy, changing workforce demographics, rising health care costs, and the Affordable Care Act as potentially important drivers of this shift. But we can glean only so much information from data. When a gap develops, we generally turn to our business contacts who are participating members in our Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) to fill in the missing information.
According to our contacts, the relative cost of full-time employees remains the most important reason for having a higher share of part-time employees than before the recession, which is the same response we received in last summer's survey on the same topic. Lack of strong enough sales growth to justify conversion of part-time to full-time workers came in as a close second.
The importance rating for each of the factors was notably similar to last year's survey, with one exception. Technology was rated as somewhat important, reflecting an uptick from the average response we received last year. We've certainly heard anecdotally that scheduling software has enabled firms to better manage their part-time staff, and it seems that this factor has gained in importance over the past year.
The chart below summarizes the reasons our business contacts gave in the July 2014 and the May 2015 surveys. The question was asked only of those who currently have a higher share of part-time workers than they did before the recession. The chart shows the results for all respondents, whether they responded to one or both surveys. When we limited our analysis to only those who responded to both surveys, the results were the same.
Will the elevated share persist?
The results suggest that a return to prerecession levels is unlikely to occur in the near term.
The chart below shows employers' predictions for part-time employment at their firms, relative to before the recession. About 27 percent of respondents believe that in two years, their firms will be more reliant on part-time work compared to before the recession. About 7 percent do not currently have an elevated share of part-time employees but believe they will in two years. About two-thirds believe their share of part-time will be roughly the same as before, while only 8 percent believe they will have less reliance on part-time workers compared to before the recession.
The majority of our contacts believe their share of part-time employment will normalize over the next two years, but some believe it will stay elevated. Still, 2017 does not mean the shift will be permanent. In fact, firms cited a balance of cyclical and structural factors for the higher reliance on part-time. Low sales growth and an ample supply of workers willing to take part-time jobs could both be viewed as cyclical factors that will dissipate as the economy further improves.
Meanwhile, higher compensation costs of full-time relative to part-time employees and the role of technology that enables companies to more easily manage their workforce can be considered structural factors influencing the behavior of firms. Firms that currently have a higher share of part-time employees gave about equal weight to these forces, suggesting that, as other research has found, both cyclical and structural factors are important explanations for the slow decline in the part-time share of employment.