Tuesday, November 19, 2013


The Thirty Hour Solution

Someday, someone is going to steal this idea and make history with it.  Alas, I’m not in a position to do that myself.  So I’ll put it out there and hope someone with means sees it.

Most jobs now are either severely part-time or entirely full-time.  Generally, the part-time jobs pay far less, proportionately, than full-time jobs do.  That’s particularly true if you go beyond dollars per hour and look at benefits.  The distinction holds across industries, and people have been forced to make life choices based on the limited set of options that exists.  The assumption is that you are either fully on board or you are just passing through.  

Once in a while, though -- often through grant-funded programs -- we’re able to post a staff job with benefits that requires, say, thirty hours a week at a reduced but proportionate salary.  It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens.  You know what happens when we post a job like that?

We get the strongest applicant pools EVER.  We have hired unbelievable people that way.  

It’s almost as if people’s preferences come in more than two flavors.  Who knew?

The thirty-hour-a-week model, or thereabouts, appeals to a surprisingly huge set of well qualified people.  Some of them are parents -- usually women, but not always -- who have children in school and want to be home when they’re home.  Some of them are working on graduate degrees, and appreciate having the ability to both support themselves and get academic work done.  Some of them have side projects, whether artistic or entrepreneurial.  Whatever the reason, I’ve had some remarkable high performers in these roles tell me point-blank that they would not even have applied if it had been posted as full-time.

As a value proposition for an employer, this strikes me as a largely ignored opportunity.  There’s a large, highly talented pool of people eager to work for lower-than-full salaries.  As a manager, I can’t help but see this as a potential way to make real progress.

That’s not to say that all is sweetness and light.  Equity around things like paid holidays, personal days, and snow days can get awkward.  Scheduling meetings can be a challenge when people have different workweeks.  During crunch times, sometimes you need more than a ¾ position.  And the optics of someone leaving early on a regular basis, or not coming in on Fridays, can rub some people the wrong way.  (“Optical Rubbing” would be a great name for a band, come to think of it.)

But those all strike me as minor, compared to the value proposition to the employer of a high performer happily and gratefully doing great work for a lower salary.  And if it means that people are able to lead balanced and sustainable lives, all the better.

The major obstacle I can see to what seems otherwise like an obvious win is that it may make it harder to maintain the distinction between jobs with benefits and jobs without.  In a more rational system -- cough single payer cough -- that wouldn’t matter so much.  But in the system we have, it’s an issue.  

I’m not sure that’s a fatal objection, though.  Given the caliber of people eager for thirty-ish hour positions, the business case -- not to mention the “decent human being” case from recognizing the needs of, say, parents -- for more thirty-ish hour jobs seems strong.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there some major obstacle I’m not seeing, or is this a potential growth area?

What I wouldn't give to work 30 hrs a week with benefits.

(tenured professor)
What you wouldn't give (or get), is a half or more of your current salary. Can you afford that?

This thirty hour proposition is fine for people for whom money is not an issue, either because their spouse has a great job or because they're independently wealthy. For everybody else, the pay is a problem. We have lots of adjuncts who work 30 hours a week, and for whom institutions will soon be needing to provide benefits (the IRS 30-hours rule). But they get paid less than your typical Walmart employee and end up needing to pick up second/third jobs to make ends meet. That is no way to live.

So, yeah, underemployment and the commensurate hit to earnings, are downsides.
I've always wondered what might be behind the rather stable value for the average work week (35 hours or so, except during the 2008 depression) reported by the BLS. Your post yesterday and this bit of anecdotal data might suggest one reason why there might be demand for that sort of part-time work.
Why would an employer want a 75% employee when they could have a 100% one? The benefits costs (mostly healthcare) are about the same either way. Full-time is therefore less expensive per hour than the 30 hour option. So people opt for full-time.
Or crazy notion, 30 hr/week becomes the standard for full-time. Gains in productivity over the last couple of decades leads to less work for most Americans instead of inflating the wealth of top 1 %. Spread out the commutes, decreasing traffic. It would significantly decrease unemployment and underemployment.
Robert Drago suggested almost this exact thing in his book, "Striking a Balance: Work, Family, Life."
Ivory understands the math on this one. Unless you cut the salary by more than 25% as you go from 40 to 30 hours, the employer's cost per hour is going up.

Now posit an employer with 400 hours of work to be done in a week. He can hire 10 people at 40 hours each, and pay for 10 benefits packages ($150,000 if they are $15,000 each), or hire 13 at 30 hours each and pay an extra $45,000 in benefits (and have 10 less hours of work done to boot). Not to mention the other management overhead of a higher head count. Unless the salary is very high compared to the benefits, this is not going to happen. It's why large overtime is often preferable to increasing staff.

Unfortunately, the economic pressure is all going the other way, to make the definition of "full time" be 29 hours, to get out from under the benefits morass. Soon a family will need 4 such jobs to make ends meet. This is an awful development.
I'm a tenured full professor, but with young kids at home. I would love it if I could somehow have a position that let me take on 75% of the workload for 75% of my current salary, and 75% of the benefits. I'm at a community college, so the salary isn't all that high to begin with, but I'd happily trade that money for more time with the kids.
There's nothing sacred about a 40 hour work week; it takes, however, substantial movement on the part of people whose services are in demand to hold out for something other than the standard you'll-get-paid-a-lot-and-be-always-on-call contract, maybe something along the lines of the 30 hour week with benefits. (I note that Dean Dad is complicit in the standard contract when he notes that "crunch time" means honoring the 30 hour contract in the breach -- that's the reality for people notionally on a 40 hour contract as well.) But, like any other emergent change in a social system, the early adopters will be in a better position to negotiate it than will be the people for whom a subsequent standard (the Fair Labor Standards Act almost guarantees a 35 hour average work week) gets through the government, or into corporate best practices.

None of which will prevent ambitious high-achievers from being rate-busters.
as Ivory and Edmund note, for the employer this makes no sense at all. Those jobs are always the first to go in layoffs, as the beancounters calculate the costs. Our company has lost several highly-skilled (moms) in 20-30 hour/week positions, only because of the benefit cost issue. Those people end up massively under-employed in part-time jobs, which seems a waste: but the iron law of wages rules us all.
Until businesses realize that employees are not commodities, we'll continue to think in dollar costs of the work week rather than productivity and satisfaction gains (at the micro level) and social benefits like traffic and community-building (at the macro level).
I work 30 hours, with benefits (leave is pro-rated, but I still get health insurance without paying any more than a full-timer). I absolutely love the hours and the flexibility it gives me to have a life outside of work. Sure, pay being 25% higher would be nice (and a requirement if I didn't have a partner who also works), but at this time it's a trade-off I'm very willing to make.
When my position came open, there was some trouble filling it (we drew from inside staff) - none of the full-timers wanted to cut hours, none of the part-timers wanted more hours.
I also adjunct for my same institution in another department for 2 classes a semester, so basically I end up making full-time wages, although I don't get any additional leave.
As I get older, I would happily trade money for time, except…

(a) my pension is based on my last five years income, so cutting hours before retirement has a big cost, and

(b) my new chair tends to hand out loads based on perceived spare time: those with children get multiple sections of a single course at convenient times, those without kids and part-timers get single-section courses and the awkward hours*.

So for me, the costs of doing that would be too high: not only monetary but also I suspect I wouldn't get the 'free' time off: it would just be sucked into the invisible overhead of teaching when my course load was adjusted.

*We all get paid the same per course. Yes it's inequitable, yes we're free to quit but accumulated pension doesn't transfer and starting at the bottom in your 50s means never retiring.
I don't know anyone who has a theoretical 40 hour a week job that works only 40 hours. 50, minimum.

So if you're getting 3/4 salary and full benefits for way less than 3/4 of the work...yes, of course that's a great offer!

The point is that ANY cap on the number of hours demanded improves your applicant pool. Because that's a benefit that doesn't exist in any other salaried position.

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