Full-time working is on the rise for a variety of reasons, including low wages and economic uncertainty, but the case for part-time options, particularly ones that offer a good quality of work, is strong.
Figures out this week show the number of women in employment fell in the last quarter, bucking a recent upward trend, but the number of men in employment rose, particularly those in full-time employment. The Institute for Employment Studies speculates that this may be evidence that employers are increasing hours rather than recruiting in order to cope with the current economic uncertainty. workingmums.co.uk has certainly had emails in from mums saying they are being asked to increase their hours from part time to full time. Often this results in them leaving their jobs as they don’t have the childcare support.
The UK has a high number of part-time workers compared to other similar countries. That is one factor cited in this week’s global report on gender inequality produced by the World Economic Forum for the UK’s earnings figures for women. The reason the UK has a high number of part-time women is the result of many things, including the cost of childcare. However, earnings are not everything. Many people value time over money, something that is particularly true at this rushed period of the year.
More women in the UK are in fact now working full time after having children than in the past. Partly that is to do with necessity – wages having been depressed since the recession – and partly it is to do with technology which enables more to work at least part of the week from home or in other flexible permutations. However, not all jobs can be done through home working.
The move towards more full-time working has been accompanied by an emphasis on ‘agile’ working, a term coined to make flexible working more dynamic and appealing to a broader range of people. Flexible working came to stand for part-time mothers, so the thinking goes, and the underlying assumption there is that people think part-time mothers are uncool and certainly not dynamic, ambitious or aspirational – even though the problem lies not with the mums but with the kind of part-time jobs that are mainly on offer.
Another problem is there is no proper infrastructure for agile working, whether that be childcare or transport or indeed parking at train stations outside of normal commuting hours. Things are still generally geared around full-time working or local part-time jobs.
Yet there are still huge skills shortages in many sector and those like education and health are not only desperate to retain people but to attract them too.
The need for part-time jobs will still be there whatever happens to the economy because of the underlying infrastructure issues, but also the increased risk of burnout if both parents are working full time.
For years people have been banging on about job shares as one answer to the lack of quality part-time jobs. They have not, however, taken off as hoped. Partly this is an education issue. Employers worry about getting the right match and about it being more complex and expensive to have two people instead of one, even though you get more for your money than one person’s experience.
That is a message that needs to be pushed continuously and case studies showing the impact need to be widely shared. Another issue is job redesign – reshaping a role so that it can be done on fewer hours. That can be a challenging exercise as can the much vaunted flexible working from day one. Managers need help to navigate all these changes and perhaps dedicated flexible working specialists. But the pay-off is worth it.
Labour is facing a lot of soul-searching about its manifesto at the moment, but its proposal of a shorter working week was popular despite scepticism about how it would work in practice, particularly when there are so many skills shortages.
The fact is that many people are leaving their jobs due to burnout and there is a clamour for greater work life balance despite the move towards more full-time jobs. There has to be a balance. We need to look at new ways of approaching all areas of work, including health and education. At the moment uncertainty is encouraging a short termist approach, but the current uncertainty will outlast Brexit – and Brexit uncertainty will continue for some time in any event – and we urgently need to plan for the future, for an ageing workforce and for the increased impact of AI. Not preparing for the future means we will be constantly on the back foot. We cannot afford to take our eyes off the ball.