The U.S. has always had a lot of part-time employment. In 2007, a year when the economy was strong and unemployment low, a bit over 22 million Americans worked part-time. This was about 16% of U.S. non-farm employment.
The vast majority of these folks - 88% - chose to work part-time. Only 12% would have preferred a full-time job.
As of October 2012, about 27 million Americans worked part-time. This is just over 19% of non-farm employment. Given the impact of the Great Recession, this not a surprising shift from 2007.
Also not surprising is a much larger group - 8.3 million or 30% - would prefer to be working full-time.
But we're starting to wonder if the recession is hiding structural shifts in both industry mix and job definitions that will lead to higher levels of part-time employment.
For example, some key industries that traditionally use relatively high percentages of part-timers are on the rise and consequently are increasing their share of total employment. According to a recent study by the National Employment Law Project, food services, retail, and employment services added 1.7 million jobs over the past two years, fully 43% of net employment growth.
Other industries we expect to grow over the next decade, such as health care and personal services, also employ a higher percentage of part-time workers than the average industry.
But there's more than just industry sectoral shifts going on.
As we wrote about last week, we are seeing more evidence of a shift to a just-in-time workforce. Driving this shift is the use of sophisticated scheduling software and other analytical tools that optimize the number of employees needed, based on realtime demand. These tools make it easier and more cost efficient to use part-time employees.
Underlying Demographic trends are also playing a role. Aging baby boomers and seniors are increasingly choosing or needing to work part-time instead of pursuing traditional retirement. This provides a new pool of part-time workers, making it easier for firms to shift work away from full-timers.
Even more interesting on the demographic side is the decline in workforce participation rates by teens (aged 16 to 19). In 2002, roughly 18% of all part-timers were teens aged 16 to 19. By 2012, this age group comprised only 12% of part-time employees. This means more adults 20 and older are working part-time.
The growth of the independent workforce (freelancers, contractors, etc.) is also a driver of part-time work. Many of these folks choose to work less than full-time, while others may only be able to round-up part-time work.
Obamacare may also have an impact. According to a recent Wall Street Journal story, one of its unintended consequences are incentives to use part-timers over full-time workers.
This area needs a lot more work and research before we fully understand what is going on.
But it's likely that part-time employment is going to be more common in the coming years.