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Labor and Economic Analysis Division, Department of Commerce

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More Hours, Please: “Involuntary” Part-Time Employment in North Carolina

North Carolina’s economy reached a milestone in August 2013 when the number of employed residents in the state (4,306,085) finally surpassed its prerecession peak. However, not all jobs are created equal, and many labor market watchers have expressed concern about the quality of jobs that these workers are filling.

One potential rough patch in North Carolina’s recovering labor market is the increased prevalence of part-time work (less than 35 hours per week). In previous years, part-time employment grew more pervasive in the immediate aftermath of recessions and declined as the economy picked up steam. However, several years into the recovery we are still seeing part-timers representing a larger share of overall employment than during previous economic expansions.

It is important to note that more part-time employment isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some workers may be unable to pursue full-time work due to family obligations, schooling, or retirement. This group, known informally as “voluntary part-time workers,” has remained at roughly the same size as a percent of overall employment in North Carolina over the past 20 years.1

However, we still have cause to be concerned about the plight of “involuntary part-time workers”—those who are willing and able to work full time, but are unable to find adequate employment in the postrecession economy. A McClatchy news piece from last year profiled one such North Carolinian, a certified nursing assistant who was unable to land a full-time job:

“It’s been a struggle to keep food in the house, to keep gas in the car,” she said. “My 17-year old was making comments, ‘Well, Mom, do we really have to live like this?’”

Involuntary part-time employment surged in North Carolina during the 2007–2009 recession and its aftermath. This was a major factor pushing North Carolina’s “U-6” unemployment rate to historic heights during that time. However, after peaking in 2011, involuntary part-time employment has declined precipitously. Although we’ve yet to recover the ground lost during the recession, we are at least seeing some promising improvement in this indicator.

The pervasiveness of involuntary part-time work varies considerably from industry to industry. In 2014, involuntary part-time work in North Carolina was most common among employees in the Leisure and Hospitality sector. As noted in an earlier article by LEAD, workers in this industry are also more likely to have schedules that vary from week to week. Meanwhile, less than 1 percent of workers in the Financial Activities and Public Administration (government) sectors worked part time involuntarily.

Not surprisingly, the likelihood of working part time involuntarily also depends a great deal on your level of educational attainment. As with other indicators of labor market health — such as earnings and unemployment — higher-educated workers have much better outcomes than lower-educated workers. In fact, workers in North Carolina without high school diplomas were five times more likely than master’s degree holders to be working part time involuntarily in 2014.

The cyclical rise and decline of involuntary part-time employment in North Carolina suggests that this trend is worth watching as an indicator of the state’s economic recovery. This trend should continue on its downward path as the recovery gains momentum. However, if the trend starts to level off at its current, historically high level — heralding a “new normal” — we might have cause for concern about structural changes in the labor market that are making it difficult for our workforce to achieve its full potential.

The problem of involuntary part-time employment has garnered significant attention from national labor market watchers and policymakers in recent years. LEAD will also continue to follow this emerging phenomenon in the coming months and examine whether — and how — it is impacting the state’s workforce and economic development landscapes.

General Disclaimers:

The Current Population Survey (CPS) estimates are subject to sampling and nonsampling error. Note that the state-level CPS estimates are not directly comparable to state-level employment 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.

1 This category of workers is also referred to by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as “part time for noneconomic reasons."

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