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Rethinking “9 to 5”: Varying Work Hours in NC

The working world of the future is unlikely to resemble that of previous generations. Shifting technologies and social norms may introduce unexpected changes in how, where, and when workers’ talents are utilized in the production of goods and services.

One highly-visible change to emerge over the past few decades has been the upward trend in contract and temporary employment (stay tuned for a forthcoming LEAD Feed article on this subject.) Another notable trend has been the increased prevalence of nonstandard work schedules. Both developments have the potential to hinder — or bolster— the earnings prospects and life satisfaction of workers and the productivity of the overall economy. Either way, they each demonstrate a new employment landscape where conventional concepts like “part time,” “full time,” and even “employee” might carry very different meanings than they once did.

Data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) reveal a significant increase in the proportion of North Carolina’s employed labor force whose work hours vary week to week. The CPS asks respondents how many hours they typically work per week at their primary job, and allows respondents to indicate that their usual hours vary. North Carolina workers reporting a varying number of work hours increased several percentage points during the 2000s, and then declined during the Recession.i Although this proportion has fallen from its recessionary highs, it remains elevated above levels seen throughout the 1990s.

Although this is a noteworthy trend, it is difficult to say for sure what is behind it. The increase during the 2000s — and subsequent decline during the Great Recession — suggests that it might be driven, in part, by temporary hires who are typically brought on during periods of growth and dismissed during lean times. The trend might also reflect increases in ”just-in-time scheduling”— a practice that was the subject of several journalistic accounts earlier this year focusing on its impact on low-income working families.

However, not everyone who works a varying schedule does so involuntarily, nor are they necessarily at the bottom of the pay scale. The trend illustrated by the above graph could be capturing increased adoption of flexible work hours, with some of these workers choosing varying (but consensual) schedules in order to accommodate their personal needs. Others might be business owners or highly skilled consultants whose work hours vary according to customer demand, but who may be able to reap strong income gains during good times.

Although we cannot say for sure what forces are driving the overall trend — or whether these forces are “good” or “bad” — one way to shine light on this issue is to examine the trends within population subgroups.ii

First, we should note that varying work hours are more common among those who worked part time (less than 35 hours) at their main job the week before the survey. The percentage of part-time workers with varying hours also increased significantly over the past 20 years, while the rate for full-time workers has held relatively steady. Part-time workers, as a whole, have been increasing as a proportion of overall employment since 2000 (although the trend in this particular data set is volatile.)

Looking at varying hours by age group can reveal whether workers are encountering irregular schedules in their early, mid, or late careers. Younger workers (age 16-24) and older workers (55+) in North Carolina are typically more likely to work varying hours than the prime-working age group (25-54). The largest change over time has occurred among young people, who are working varying hours at much higher rates than they did 20 years ago. The younger age group declined as a proportion of overall employment during this time; however, the older population (who are also more likely to work varying hours) grew by an even larger amount.

It is also possible to break this trend out by the industry of employment, which may reveal industry-specific patterns in work scheduling. Construction workers and leisure and hospitality workers have typically been more likely to encounter varying hours, while manufacturing workers have had more stable schedules. Manufacturing has seen its share of overall employment decline significantly in North Carolina over the past decade.

To sum up: varying work hours in North Carolina are more common among part-time workers, persons under 25 or over 54, and workers in the construction or leisure and hospitality industries. The statewide increase in workers with varying hours appears to have been driven, in part, by increases in part-time employment, older workers, and a decline in manufacturing employment.

For better or for worse, the rise of varying work hours (along with increasing utilization of temps and contract workers) reflects the emergence of new labor market institutions that call our conventional understanding of the working world into question. LEAD will continue to follow these emerging stories in the months to come and explore their implications for the economic and workforce development fields.

General Disclaimers:
The Current Population Survey (CPS) estimates are based on a survey and are subject to sampling and nonsampling error. Note that the state-level CPS estimates are not directly comparable to state-level labor force estimates from the Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS) program due to differences in methodology. Any mistakes in data management, analysis, or presentation are the author’s.

i This trend was largely the same when I looked at those whose work hours vary for their secondary job.
ii Note that data availability differs for some of the below comparisons; as a result, the start dates differ.
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Andrew Berger-GrossAndrew Berger-Gross

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