The Part-Time Worker

Michelle Asci has put her dreams of being a professional photographer on hold while working part-time selling popcorn at an Atlanta movie theater since 2005. (Credit: CNN)Much was made about how many part-time workers contributed to the job growth in September. There are now 8.6 million Americans working on a part-time basis for "economic reasons." Some observers wonder whether this is the new normal or a conscious business response to, among other factors, the Affordable Care Act.

The news last week from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the U.S. jobless rate dropped below the 8 percent mark for the first time in four years got its own scrutiny. Conservative pundits and some business leaders questioned whether the news was rigged to bolster President Obama's re-election bid.

Moving beyond the conspiracy theorists, others questioned the vitality of the economy when many of the new jobs were part-time.

The Washington Post cited published data by Paul Dales of Capital Economics indicating that the number of Americans working 30 hours or less per week actually has retreated to pre-recession levels. Many of the new part-timers are working between 30 and 34 hours per week. That may not be ideal, Dales admits, but it is has a more notable economic effect than if they were working only 20 hours per week.

Still, the personal tales of part-time workers are unsettling. Displaced workers and recent college graduates describe a job market that is unforgiving and jobless benefits that get exhausted. There are almost 4 million Americans who have been out of work for a year or more and their prospects for landing a job are even grimmer.

CNN broadcast a piece tracking the fortunes of part-time workers — a college graduate manning a movie theater concession stand, a displaced telecommunications executive who reads to young children and a long-time radio station employee who works three jobs, including at his own Internet radio startup.

The part-time workers CNN interviewed aren't particularly upset or bitter. They recognize their plight is tied to the sluggish national economic recovery. One woman said getting laid off from her previous well-paying corporate job gave her a chance to re-evaluate her life priorities. The Internet radio entrepreneur said his layoff gave him the freedom, at age 50, to try something he had always wanted to try.

The larger concern voiced by these workers and many others is the waste of talent. The movie-theater employee is selling popcorn instead of pursuing a career in photography after taking her college degree in fine arts. A 27-year-old data entry clerk at a bank wants to go to law school, but cannot pay off her undergraduate student loans, let alone take on the debt required to earn a law degree.

The rise of part-time workers prompts questions about the transforming U.S. economy. Has the nation lost its competitive edge? Are we victims to lower-cost wages and benefits in foreign countries? Has free-trade eroded the underpinnings of our middle-class?

There also are questions about employers who may be turning to part-time labor as a way to hold down employee benefit costs, especially for health insurance. The Orlando Sentinel published a story about an experiment conducted by Darden Restaurants to stop offering full-time schedules to hourly workers in some of its Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Longhorn Steakhouse restaurants. In a statement, Darden officials said changes in scheduling are "just one of the many things we are evaluating to help us address the cost implications health care reform will have on our business."

Matthew Snook, with the human resources consulting company Mercer, says, "I think a lot of employers, especially restaurants, are just going to ensure nobody gets scheduled more than 30 hours a week" to avoid paying for employees who obtain health insurance through an insurance exchange.

There are plenty of other, perhaps more far-reaching questions about the part-time worker issue. Do more people want to work part-time? Will economic growth actually result in more well-paying jobs or just more part-time work? Is the cost of a college education worth it any more?

For now, there isn't much clarity on how much of America's job problem is tied to what Thomas Friedman calls a "hyper-connected" global economy or how much it of stems from what some view as a declining U.S. education system, which needs major reform to prepare a new generation to compete in the Information Age.

The presidential campaign discourse seems to skim across the surface of the issue with arguments over tax policy, government regulation and investments in public infrastructure. For people underemployed, as well as those without jobs, it must seem like a debate that misses the point.