Part-Time Employees Want More Hours. Can Companies Tap This ‘Hidden’ Talent Pool?
Businesses need more staff and employees need more work, so what’s standing in the way? A report by Joseph Fuller and colleagues shows how algorithms and inflexibility prevent companies from accessing valuable talent in a long-term shortage.
Part-time workers who want more hours are a hugely untapped resource. Strange, since employers continue to encounter skills shortages. Why are qualified, eager workers underemployed?
Harvard Business School Professor Joseph Fuller’s latest paper, “Hidden Workers, Part-Time Potential (pdf),” reveals that many such workers are caregivers, excluded from full-time jobs because short-sighted employers don’t offer them the flexibility they need. Filtered out by hiring algorithms due to employment gaps or other hiring “red flags,” these willing workers could offer one solution to human resource managers looking for talent in a tight job market.
“A COMPANY HAS TO UNDERSTAND THAT RIGIDITY AROUND JOB DESCRIPTIONS AND WORK PROCESSES ARTIFICIALLY CONSTRAINS THE POOL OF TALENT THAT THEY CAN ACCESS FOR A POSITION.”
The data were culled from surveys of nearly 9,000 jobseekers in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States in 2020 conducted by the Managing the Future of Work project, which Fuller co-chairs. The insights come at a crucial moment for employers, who continue to scramble to fill openings despite economic headwinds.
“A company has to understand that rigidity around job descriptions and work processes artificially constrains the pool of talent that they can access for a position,” explains Fuller. More flexible approaches, he adds, would “relieve some of this artificial shortage that employers are creating by insisting that everyone fit a preset definition.”
Manjari Raman, program director and senior researcher for Managing the Future of Work, and Francis Hintermann, Global Lead of Accenture Research, collaborated on the paper.
Where are workers hiding, and why?
The team defines hidden workers in three ways:
- People with “missing hours,” who work one or more part-time jobs but could potentially work full time.
- Those “missing from work,” who have been unemployed for a long time but are still seeking employment.
- And those “missing from the workforce,” who aren’t currently working but could be under the right circumstances.
In this latest March 2023 report, the team examined roughly 1,500 part-time workers who indicated that, if circumstances were different, they would prefer to work more hours.
- 22 percent of respondents said gaps in resumes prevented them from finding work.
- 28 percent cited years of experience as a barrier.
- 31 percent said that they can’t find jobs that balance with personal circumstances.
- 29 percent said that they work part-time due to caregiving responsibilities.
Spotlight on women and caregivers
Caregivers are the largest segment of these untapped workers, comprising a third of respondents. Not shockingly, Fuller found that part-time workers are mainly middle-aged, sandwich-generation women: 72 percent of part-timers were female, and 65 percent were 35 and older.
“The single-biggest driver of that is caregiving obligations,” Fuller says.
Nearly all, or 91 percent, of part-time employees caring for children under 18 were women, and 61 percent of part-time employees caring for parents or an elderly family member were women.
Three steps toward a new path for caregivers
What can change? Plenty. Fuller’s team found that, in all cases, increased flexibility and robust communication would allow many hidden employees to work more.
“The main onus is on businesses to make more hours available to part-time employees. That will enable employers to utilize workers they already have with company-specific experience, bolstering their income and reducing the odds that they will voluntarily leave their position,” Fuller says.
He recommends three actions to business leaders:
Label the issue for employees. For too long, workplace norms around benefits have continued unchallenged. “Make it discussable,” Fuller says.
“THE ISSUE OF EMPLOYEE’S BROADER NEEDS WAS SHOEHORNED INTO THE DIALOGUE ABOUT COVID-19 WITH UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES—SOME OF WHICH ARE PRETTY POSITIVE.”
In a bittersweet twist, COVID-19 blew open the door on transparency. Suddenly, companies began to say, “Your wellbeing is essential,” Fuller says. “The issue of employee’s broader needs was shoehorned into the dialogue about COVID-19 with unintended consequences—some of which are pretty positive.”
Still, entrenched patterns are hard to break.
“Historically, there was a standard deal between employers and employees. From the employers’ point of view: I pay you what I’m prepared to pay you, and I pay you two types of currency: cash and benefits. You can take it or leave it. You may decide, I don’t want it anymore. And I may decide, I don’t need you anymore, and that’s just the deal,” he says.
This transactional pattern doesn’t account for the totality of human experience: caring for a special needs child or an ill parent, for instance. Companies have made small acknowledgments over the years, but not enough to move the needle.
“Maybe a company says, ‘We’re going to have a support group of workers with special needs kids who can meet monthly in a conference room.’ But less than half of American companies keep track of their workforce’s care demographics,” Fuller says.
Acknowledge–and embrace–the prevalence female caregivers in the workforce. “Employers need to recognize that this demographic is going to become more important in the workforce of the future,” Fuller says. Future generations of women will go on to comprise a larger part of the workforce, since an ever-growing proportion of college and graduate school enrollees are women, he adds.
This planning is even more necessary with the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Fuller cautions. As computers automate more jobs, soft skills—which, as of now, computers still can’t perform—will become more sought-after.
“What will be left is the capacity to deal with other human beings,” Fuller says. “Over 20 years, companies have massively shifted toward looking for people with high social skills. Guess what? When you test for social skills aptitude, who wins? Women.”
Design workplace policies and trajectories that cater to caregiving. While much has been written about flexibility in terms of remote work or unpaid vacation, true flexibility comes from an employer mindset: Smart companies should buoy this increasingly female workforce by offering accommodations that meet the widely felt needs of women and by rethinking the routes to advancement.
“MOST CAREER PATHS ARE STILL VERY MUCH ROOTED IN 1960S AND 1970S LOGIC.”
“Most career paths are still very much rooted in 1960s and 1970s logic,” Fuller says. “Companies should think about: How do we change job descriptions, promotion processes, expectations of travel, and expectations of time in the office, [instead of]: How do we provide ancillary services to enable the increasingly female workforce to work like their dads or their granddads did?” he says.