More professionals opt to go part time
In 2003, Jeff Ward was working 12-hour days as a partner with a Chicago law firm. His wife, Tracy Birmingham, had been a full-time lawyer at the Sara Lee Corp. But the couple wanted to spend more time with their toddler and newborn twins. Their solution? Part-time jobs. Today, Ward works three days a week as assistant general counsel at apparel maker Timberland in Stratham, N.H., a job he shares with another dad. Birmingham works from home eight hours a week for the University System of New Hampshire. "There are sacrifices from a financial standpoint," Ward says. "But the ability to focus on things outside work is very important to us."
Whether they're parents like Ward and Birmingham or baby boomers transitioning to retirement, a growing number of professionals are finding that employers are receptive to part-time schedules. Between 2000 and 2004, the number of workers in part-time management or professional occupations grew from 5.7 million to 6.4 million. And a new study by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation suggests that part-time work won't dead-end a career. The study followed more than 80 part-time professionals between 1996 and 2003. Most received at least one promotion and received pay increases comparable to those of workers who returned to full-time status.
Few and far. While such jobs may be viable, they're often elusive. Ward landed his post in three months, after spotting it on a professional association website, but Birmingham pounded the pavement for nine months. "As much as companies talk about the desire to promote part-time initiatives, the reality is, they're still difficult to find," says Tory Johnson, founder and CEO of Women for Hire, a New York firm that connects employers and female professionals.
Without a doubt, the easiest way to find a part-time position is to negotiate a reduced schedule with your current employer. "There's no way I could find a gig like I have now with my company if I'd come in from the outside," says Melissa Robert, who works three days a week as director of marketing planning for American Greetings in Cleveland. While on maternity leave in 2002, Robert decided she didn't want to return to the 60-hour weeks required by her existing job, so she called managers of other divisions, and one created a new part-time position just for her. Some companies have formal programs to facilitate such arrangements, such as Macy's West, a division of Federated Department Stores, which offers executives the opportunity to work from home, maintain flexible or part-time schedules, or job-share through its Alternative Work Program.
To negotiate a reduced schedule, be prepared to make the business case to your boss. Explain how your work will get done, and stress the savings the company will incur by prorating your salary and benefits. But be sure to investigate how such a move might affect your career. At many companies it is possible to work fewer hours and remain on the fast track; at Ernst & Young, for example, 55 employees on reduced schedules have been promoted to the firm's three highest levels since 1993. But at other firms, part-time work may slow down your progress, at least temporarily.
Part-time wannabes are wise to include nonprofits, small firms, and start-ups in their search. Striking out with dozens of law firms, large companies, and headhunters, Tracy Birmingham shifted her strategy. Having once worked at a university, she knew that such institutions couldn't always budget for enough full-time attorneys. "I made a cold call to the University of New Hampshire and said, 'If you're looking to hire someone for a limited amount of time, I'm available,' " she says.
Another strategy is to interview for jobs with a lower salary or less responsibility than you're used to. In that case, you may be able to offer the company greater expertise than they thought they could afford. And networking is key, as plum part-time positions often are not advertised. After Dawn Miller of Santa Ana, Calif., left her job at Macy's West to care for her children, she kept in touch. When a job-share opened up in human resources, the company called her. Professional associations are also good places to spread the word, as are groups that promote work-life balance, such as Flex-Time Lawyers of Philadelphia.
The desire of many professionals to work fewer hours has dovetailed nicely with firms who have shied away from boosting head counts after the last economic downturn. As a result, some companies are exploring "just in time" hiring, recruiting executives for short stints when needed. Agencies such as Spherion, Kelly Services, and Manpower that cater to these firms can be valuable resources for part-time jobs.
When you do land shorter hours, keep in mind that your new schedule might not solve all your time troubles. It takes vigilance and diplomacy to prevent a part-time workload from expanding to full-time proportions. Still, many who've adopted a reduced schedule say they'll never go back. "This is not something I want to do just while my kids are young," says Michael Moody, Jeff Ward's job-sharing partner. "I hope we continue it for many years." For professionals like these, part-time work has become a full-time way of life.
This story appears in the March 21, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.