Our Part-Time Labor Problem

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I teach part-time. My students work. They work in fast food or slightly slower food or hospitality. Last spring semester, two were veterans, with at least four trips to the Middle East between them. One of my four parents cut her hours short to race to my class. Every time my students do not learn as much as possible about college writing, I feel guilty, so I feel guilty a lot. Of course, I’m on a short-term contract, so I can’t afford to give students my full attention. Teaching is a side job, one of several.

My students are in debt. In-state tuition at the University of Montana is a reasonable $6,000 a year, but even that adds up to $24,000 plus compounding interest, tethering them to an economy that is glad to negotiate with the desperate. School is a serious bet.

To dissect the structure of an extremely short op-ed, I displayed an 11-tweet essay by Sarah Kendzior, a classically constructed argument that described the “prestige economy.” Kendzoir argues that entry-level jobs have been replaced by unpaid internships, which funnel work experience to the children of the wealthy. Work experience, rather than education, becomes a prerequisite for any real job. The expense of training is transferred to employees. Careers cost, and jobs hardly pay.

As they read the projector, even the chatty students were silenced. The student who had just come from work stared at the feet of her desk. I felt heartbroken. Finally, one of the veterans spoke up: “Look at number 5.”

That tweet began: “Make these part-time jobs not ‘count’ on resume.” Everybody could feel their wasted work.

By 2013, 70% of American job growth was in part-time jobs. According to the Wall Street Journal, less than half of American adults work full-time. In higher education, 40% of academic jobs have vanished since the recession, and schools are learning they can save money by shuffling through part-time adjuncts, who earn poverty wages without triggering the protections of the law. Education suffers, but for an administrator, it’s easier to prove one’s bureaucratic worth in short-term dollar savings than in long-term student critical thinking skills. Business school strikes again.

Part-timers have to be on call for an unusual combination of hours. Once, a girl who worked in retail told me she could “only afford” to work there because she lived with her parents. Bosses kept turnover high, meaning no one accidentally qualified for a raise.

My students don’t know about my side job. I earn $40 an hour on weekends, writing as a contractor for a hydra-headed conglomerate, or say, the rare $75 an hour consulting on a script. I earned half a semester’s pay this summer in two weeks. Eventually, I’ll have to explain to my students that in my world, part-timing pays more. At some point, you cross some line, you’re one of the team, and they pay you like a professional. Contractors earn a premium for flexibility. If clients want to pay less, they hire you full-time.

We don’t just need a higher minimum wage in America—we should legislate a far higher minimum wage for part-time work than for full-time work. Part-timing is draining and uncertain in a way that full-time work is not. Management practices that depend on high worker turnover (far too many, these days) should have to incorporate the cost they project on employees.

The last work trip I made with my corporate employers, we focused on the same project for ten-hour days. (However, business travel on Monday and Friday meant the consultants only really worked four days a week.)

We didn’t outsweat other jobs I’ve had. Consulting hours were gentler than at the warehouse or the publishing company, the responsibility was less dramatic than the sleep-deprived possibility of damaging a $300,000 hydraulic oil tool or dropping construction debris on a co-worker. The specialized knowledge—for which consultants were trained!—seemed similar, at the entry level, to the knowledge expected of an undergrad.

I’d bet my students put in similar hours on their multiple jobs, especially if you count the time shuttling on public transit. But the young consultants earned more, and kept talking casually about a term I hadn’t heard anyone use seriously in a half a decade: vacation.


Christopher Benz writes. More from this author →