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Riding the Part-time Wave

Wednesday, March 1, 2006 - 08:03

Riding the Part-time Wave

As part-time and casual work become a reality for many Australians, managers are feeling compelled to respond effectively to the needs and demands of this section of the workforce. Bina Brown reports.

The challenge of keeping a motivated and happy workforce, despite inadequate hours or infrequent work, calls for fresh thinking and a flexible and varied style of management.

Jenny Beresford, 47, was in a full-time management position with an IT software house when she took three months off to have her first child. She returned as a part-time employee, working three to four days a week.

"Firstly, I needed to do five days' work in three days, but I wasn't fully involved in the decision making within the organisation, so my status was reduced. In order to regain my status I needed to make myself visible in the days I wasn't working," says Beresford.

"It was a common experience," says Beresford, who ended up returning to work full-time "to regain the credibility I had worked hard for."

Three years later she was a manager in a public sector organisation when she had her second child.

"When I went back part-time I made sure I had the right staff who supported me and made sure I was included in staff meetings," says Beresford.

"On both occasions I had to work extra hard to make it all possible, both at work and at home," she says.

Now the Vice President of management consultants Proudfoot Consulting, Beresford says enlightened organisations that plan well can accommodate more flexibility so that people who work part-time are not seen as second class citizens.

"The failure of companies to manage part-time workers is a failure of the organisation's capabilities. I would not be surprised if companies who cannot manage part-time workers end up failing," she says.

According to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Secretary Greg Combet, part-time or casual employment is possibly the most distinctive feature of our workforce transformation.

Market dynamics

During the 1990s, permanent employment increased by just five per cent while the number of casual jobs grew by almost 70 per cent with almost one-third or two million Australian workers now casuals, Combet says.

On current trends, more than one in every three jobs in Australia will be casual by the end of the decade Combet says.

A large number of these workers are women, many with family responsibilities. But casual employment for men is expanding rapidly - almost doubling as a proportion from 12 per cent of male employees in 1988 to 23 per cent in 2001, according to the ACTU.

In a report, Securing Quality Employment: Policy Options for Casual and Part-time Workers in Australia, done for the Labor think tank Chifley Research Centre, academics Dr Barbara Pocock of Labour Studies at the University of Adelaide, Dr John Buchanan from the University of Sydney's ACIRRT, a leading research and training organisation, Dr Iain Campbell of the Centre for Applied Social Research at RMIT, Melbourne, found that while many people employed casually are working for short periods in limited term jobs, many are long-term employees in ongoing jobs - the average tenure of casual employees is more than two years.

Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of the Newcastle Graduate School of Business, Julia Connell, says only regulatory distinction between short-term, irregular employment and ongoing work can check the practice of ongoing long-term employment on casual conditions. Many countries make this distinction so that long-term employment on casual conditions is risky.

Connell says some steps have been taken to improve the terms of casual employees including giving some long-term casual employees some of the rights available to other employees (for example, in relation to unpaid maternity leave and unfair dismissal); compensating casuals for some lost rights and conditions (for example, through increases in the casual loading); and limitations on casual employment itself (for example, through ratios, or limits on the time that a worker can be employed casually).

Paradigm shift

While no one disputes the trend towards casual workers, some managers and management consultants don't see it as all bad for organisations or the economy.

With an ageing population, a shortage of skilled workers and a generation that thrives on change entering the workforce, it puts the onus on management to embrace flexibility and work with employees to make sure everyone's objectives are met.

Tracey Cooper, a Director of recruitment process outsourcing company Alexander Mann Solutions, says better management of the contingent labour force (non-permanent employees such as temporary staff, contractors and consultants) can lead to significant savings and the ability for organisations to retain high performing workers in the years to come.

But she says that the contingent workforce is often not consistently managed in larger organisations with multiple business units.

Greg Weiss, human relations specialist and Founder of Key Engagement Employment Programs (KEEP), says the key issue for management in managing the changing workforce will be one of retention.

"It is not all that bad in fact, it is encouraging there are part-time and casual workers," he says.

"It is the end of the baby boomer and the start of generation Y. What motivates these two groups is not the same. A baby boomer is more traditional with expectations on remuneration and security. Generation Y is looking at a more flexible work environment and stimulating work," says Weiss.

"Managers who have casual workers who are younger will need to provide stimulating work and a variety of projects rather than responsibility."

Also, don't be surprised if they move on.

"These people want to achieve a tapestry of work experience rather than several experiences within the one company," says Weiss.

Daniel Turner is Managing Director of outsource call centre services provider Unity4 Teleservices that employs 170 "highly skilled" full-time, part-time and contract employees - all of whom work from home.

Being a remote workforce, Unity4 management deals with its employees on a one-on-one basis, which he says helps productivity gains.

"For good candidates job security is not an issue. Being highly skilled and in short supply they are in a powerful position to negotiate the terms and conditions. We will hire people on the terms and conditions they think appropriate. Flexibility and freedom are their greatest demands," he says.

Turner does believe that while skilled workers will have the upper hand in pushing for freedom, low skilled workers could be pushed by organisations looking for efficiency.

"As an employer you have to be aware of an employee's needs," he says.

Nick Waterworth, Chairman of recruitment specialists Ambition, says there are more people looking for part-time work than there are jobs available - something he thinks will change if the economy keeps growing at the current pace.

He says good managers will work out ways to get part-time workers involved in the general goings-on within a company, and include them as part of a team.

He cites one example where a graphic designer working for a large organisation moved from Sydney

to the northern NSW coast for lifestyle reasons. Rather than lose her, the organisation let her work part-time, on half the salary.

"The organisation works hard at keeping her involved, regularly bringing her to Sydney for conferences and social occasions. They have an arrangement where if there is not a lot of work in one week she will make up for it down the track," says Waterworth.

"Managers who recognise that quality staff are hard to find will go out of their way to make it work," he says.

Waterworth says managers should also be prepared for growing numbers of contract-permanent positions,

a growing trend motivated by "try before you buy" either by the employer or increasingly, in a tight market, by the candidate.

"Whilst these traditional contract-permanent positions still make up around half of placements, there has been a big increase in companies making unexpected permanent offers to top-tier contractors in order to retain them in what is recognised as a difficult recruitment market," says Waterworth.

"Smaller businesses have also been increasing their contract-permanent positions as a way of attracting talent, which would otherwise gravitate towards the larger firms. In the financial services sector and within newer commercial organisations, contract-permanent positions have been created not so much to try the person but to try a new product or service offering. The company does not want to commit to a permanent position until they test the market."

Proudfoot Consulting's Beresford says it is important that organisations don't let a culture develop where part-time and full-time employees are treated any differently. Both need motivation, to feel included and to be given feedback, she says.

"Successful part-timers tend to focus on the needs of full-time work, like planning, monitoring and maintaining their visibility. That means there has to be an understanding that their standing is as important as full-time workers.

"Where it tends to fail is where there is a lack of planning, and when it is an ad hoc arrangement. Colleagues need to know when they can contact a part-time worker and include them. If the rules of engagement aren't clear then it leads to confusion," says Beresford.

"If organisations become more organised with scheduling and planning they can then be more flexible with their workforce and achieve just as effective outcomes for the company."

What the numbers tell

  • Little more than half the Australian workforce is now employed on a permanent basis.
  • The net increase in jobs in the 1990s consisted almost entirely of casual and part-time jobs.
  • Half of all employees work overtime, and 60 per cent of them are not paid for it.
  • The standard model of work has disappeared - only 7% of employees work 9 to 5.
  • The jobs with the largest number of employees in 2001 were sales assistants, secretaries and cleaners. Middle income jobs declined.
  • One million people are casual workers - by 2010, one in three workers will be casual.
  • Half of all casual workers, who are mostly female, have been in the same job for over a year.
  • 51 per cent of employees working more than 45 hours a week would prefer fewer hours.

Source: ACTU