Nice Work If You Can Get It: Finding a Part-time Job

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written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

Boomers are hoping to keep on working past the traditional retirement age of 64. The Conference Board found in a survey that over half of respondents between ages 48 and 56 expect to work for pay instead of retiring. Many say they’d like to work part-time.

In theory, part-time work has real allure. You can stay on the payroll, and stay involved—but you can also free up time to read, go fishing, perfect your tango, see the grandchildren, or pursue other interests.

But in the era of 24/7 technologies, what does “part time” really mean?

Mothers of young children who return to the workforce know too well that the three-day work week creeps up to four. There’s both peer pressure and a huge temptation to work from outside the office anytime, anywhere: while on vacation, after dinner with the family, even at dinner with the family. A Businessweek article entitled, “The Real Reasons You’re Working So Hard,” published a few years ago noted that it’s the best-educated and best-paid American workers are working the longest hours, not the low-wage blue collar laborers of yesteryear. So, ironically, by cutting back to part-time, you may find yourself working “just” a 35 or 40-hour week. Still, that gives you a little breathing room, and more time to explore new options.

Surprise! Looking for part-time Work? Ask Your Boss
Should you be looking for less-than-full-time-work, your quest –like charity that begins at home — should begin at your home-away-from home: your current job.

An authoritative study, the Cornell Study of Employer Phased Retirement Policies, found that you are not likely to be offered part-time work on a silver platter, or see a job posting for it, at your current place of employment. That doesn’t mean you can’t finagle it. But, you have to ask. The Cornell study surveyed 950 employers and found that while a huge majority—nearly three in every four—of U.S. workplaces would allow an employee 50 or older to work fewer hours, they don’t advertise that fact. Downshifting to part-time from full-time work exists, but it’s an informal arrangement, not official HR policy.

One in three of the establishments in the Cornell survey that said they would consider a long-time employee shifting to part-time work. Many reported that one or more of their employees have actually done this already, despite the absence of company policy on the matter.

So, if you’re dreaming of working less, consider these tips:

TIP #1: Maintain Good Relationships at Work
It’s smart to stay on good terms with the movers and shakers at your place of employment if indeed you’d like to continue to work there, but with reduced hours. Who holds the key? Your current and past bosses, the HR department, and heads of other departments where you might be able to work. So stay visible. Let them know what you’ve been doing, what your successes have been, speak up at meetings, and send the occasional strategic email. In a sense, you need to do the things one does when looking for a promotion: impress your bosses with how valuable you are to the firm.

TIP #2: Beware Your Benefits
Before you announce to your entire department that you are trying to downshift to part-time work, do have a confidential word with the company’s benefits office. They can provide essential information about salary and whether and how much your pension and benefits will be whittled away if you do shift to a part-time schedule.

TIP #3: If You Change Employers, Look in these Sectors
Certain industries – health, education and retail, most notably – are more amenable than others to part-time work. It’s just easier to tailor your hours if you’re working in retail trade and service businesses than, say, in a government agency that’s bound by red tape.
The Cornell study found that generally, organizations that were more open to part-time work arrangements had these characteristics:

  • they were smaller,
  • in the service sector,
  • in growing (rather than contracting) industries, and
  • had a largely female workforce.