Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Part-time AND professional?

I've been thinking quite a lot about the issues raised by part-time work recently. I work part-time (three days a week spread over four), in a professional post. I didn't start out intending to work part-time at all, but it has happened several times: as I've already said here, once to accommodate voluntary work as a lay assistant in a parish church in London, once because I wanted to move back to Wales and had no luck at all finding a full-time job in order to do so, and now because of family commitments.

I am fully qualified with fairly wide experience and an unbroken if unconventional work record, and I consider myself professional in what I do. I try to keep up to date (which is getting increasingly difficult with the rapid pace of change!) and I try to complete what I can in the time which I have. It is never enough, and because of the family I cannot do what many of my colleagues do and stay on late to finish things. I'm limited in what I can take home with me too, although I have been known to do book ordering at midnight. What I cannot do is actually be in the building at midnight!

After a merciful lull in January (people wind down around Christmas and things don't always get going again straight away) we recently hit a patch of meeting frenzy at work. I had a meeting every day for nearly three weeks. Each meeting takes up proportionally more of your time if you are part-time. If your working day is a half day, and a meeting lasts for two hours, you probably have one hour left in which to get everything else done, whereas your full-time colleagues still have the whole afternoon. You cannot fill in only 50% or 60% of the many forms, surveys, and reports back to working groups which come your way. This eats into the time available for everything else: yet with the long opening hours which many libraries have there are raised expectations that service will match those hours. With academic libraries now open until midnight, or even all night, other solutions are found for staffing. Even in the public library in which I worked, there was no question of anyone (even the full-time staff) working all the hours the library was open (nearly 50 hours a week).

The image of the part-timer is generally negative: "never there", not committed, only doing it for pin money, I've heard it all (lots of times). I cannot imagine how any public library service could cope without part-time staff to cover those awkward evening and weekend slots as well as daytime hours (something anyone thinking it can be done on a voluntary basis will need to consider carefully). Lots of professional library posts are in fact part-time: there may be some historical reason for individual examples, but very often these days it is simply a matter of finance. Part-time/full-time posts can distort the job market for anyone who is looking for work. If you are unemployed and looking for a full-time post, the most interesting opportunities always seem to be part-time (which is certainly no good if a move is involved, as they will probably not pay enough to make a move worthwhile): whereas if you cannot work full-time you can be sure that the perfect full-time post will be advertised just when you are not available to do it. Swings and roundabouts - all I can say is that I am grateful that in libraries at least interesting part-time posts exist!

I'm only too well aware that it must be frustrating seeing your part-time colleagues rushing off in the middle of the day to reach the school gate or the nursery. The criticism that you should not be at work at all with such distractions and limitations on your work time lurks beneath the surface (most of the time). It's not a new argument. I'm not going to go into all the issues it raises here, except to point out that, long as it may seem, the period when you are raising young children is actually quite a small proportion of your whole working life (especially now that retirement age seems to be receding up to and beyond the allotted span), and stepping out of the profession s/he (but it's usually she) is educated and trained for may be an irrevocable step, as my own mother discovered to her cost.

Here is a comment from a blog in which a member of the public is, in passing, complaining about his local library service in East Anglia:

"An instance: I was pretty shocked to find that nearly all the staff were part-time, for instance. You can easily see how that is convenient for the staff — and if no-one says no, if no-one is really looking at whether the service is doing what it should, then why not? But you can’t do that, because it means that no-one is actually taking responsibility (as I found out). It’s a splendid way to spend exactly the same money as for a staff of professionals, but get much less good service."

Note how he takes for granted that part-time does not equal professional. I wonder how widespread that opinion is? I'm not endorsing the views of Roger Pearse - most of what he says seems to spring from a personal gripe - but that doesn't mean he is alone in them, and it is a depressing thought for someone like me. I know I could do my job better if I had more time for it, and I expect to have more time as my child grows up. We do, after all, rather depend on there being a next generation coming along in a university!


  1. Great post - certainly struck a chord with me and useful to unpack those lurking assumptions/criticisms. Thanks!

  2. Wow. Quite depressing as I have either not really encountered this or have remained blissfully unaware. I do put *myself* under pressure due to "part-timer guilt" and truly believe I am much more productive at work now that I am not full-time as every minute counts.

    I'm actually quite shocked at the assumption that part-time means unprofessional to some (ridiculous) people!

  3. Yes, I'm a 'pesky part-timer', working three days over four in order to be there for my son at the start and end of the school day. But I also do a lot of professional development in my own time - and with my own money. Where I work, they've just made it policy that ALL jobs should be advertised as open and accessible to part-time workers, and we also have a job-share community, which helps people to share good practice around the idea of job share and working part-time. I actually think that two people sharing one job brings more benefits to the employer - problem solving is shared and there is twice the expertise. Part-timers are over-looked and under-valued, but I think that the view is slowly changing.

  4. Enjoyed this, thanks.

    As you know I find myself in a part-time situation designated as such by my employer, without the drive for part-time work having come from me, the appointed individual. I'm in a situation where I'm paid to work part-time, but, as I have no evident family commitments, it's assumed that I will willingly alter my hours at a moment's notice. And the pressure from the volume of work we have is such, and my family commitments are so few, that I'm found at my desk for a minimum of an additional five hours a week... which is more than a fifth of the hours I'm contracted to work. I also find myself coping by, like you, returning to work emails at home at ridiculous hours of the night, responding to enquiries at weekends, and feeling increasingly dismayed that no-one expresses surprise that I do this. Indeed, today I was openly criticised for not having attended an evening event the week before last... and how did I respond? By apologising.

    Were I not to put in this extra effort, I would feel I'm not fulfilling my professional duties. And it's obvious from how accepting people are of my behaviour, that there's an expectation of part-time not truly equalling professional. But I'm perpetuating this sentiment, I'm even endorsing it. I'm saying, "Yes, sure, pay me part-time wages, but I'll work (almost) full-time to prove I really am professional". Which isn't helping at all those in your position who simply can't do similarly.

    Our full-time colleagues may be frustrated that we're not always there, but I'm too often frustrated that they're paid to have quieter, less frantic, oh-my-goodness-I-have-to-rush-to-finish-this-NOW moments and seemingly even have the time for an occasional chat with one another... something that is utterly unimaginable for me for most of the academic year. I've often thought we part-time professionals need to gather to talk and support each other, but I then wonder how the heck we'd find the time...

    1. Do so agree with you Sarah - I think people sometimes forget that we are not paid the same! In a way it touches on the whole volunteer debate too, and the idea which seems to be around at the moment that work is not necessarily something people get paid for.

  5. Helen, This echoes so much of my experience! The one thing I struggle with is deadlines; full-time staff set deadlines, or arrange a follow-up meeting for a week's time and I'm sitting there thinking "well, that actually only gives me x hours to be ready for this!" They seem to forget that what seems a reasonable timespan to them is not to me!

    And in response to Sarah, we did have a meeting set up specifically for part-time staff to discuss their particular issues. Agreed that we feel less able to stand around and chat like our full-time colleagues, yet this bonding with others is so important, not only for our work, but also to create the right impression with our colleagues - no, we're not stand-offish, just far too busy! As a team manager, however, I do feel able, indeed, I make it my job, to chat to members of my team so I know what's going on with the jobs and with them, but it is at the expense of many other things.
    At the moment I am glad to be working part-time so I can take part in things like twitter chats and blogging which might otherwise be slightly frowned upon by my employer as not really central to my role. Like the rest of you, I also email etc. when I am not at work, but I know lots of full-time people who also do, so maybe this is just the way things are these days?

    1. Yes, lots of full-time people do lots of unpaid overtime too. This may be helping to create a situation in which too much is expected, generally! (So some people are working too hard while others cannot get jobs). Your point about deadlines also rings true - especially if your week is supposed to finish, say, on Wednesday, and requests come on Wednesday wanting responses "by next week".