Part-time hits the big time

Part-time hits the big time

The severe skills shortage has drastically changed the corporate view of part-time work.

On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Roy Jackson works for IBM with large financial companies, translating their business needs into computer programs. He spends Thursdays and Fridays writing songs for a pop rock band, the Krills. A tight labour market and fierce competition for talent mean you no longer have to get pregnant or old to negotiate flexible hours. Jackson is one of a growing number who have shrunk their working week to pursue other interests.

He went part-time in October, four years after joining IBM from university while playing in the Krills.

"For a long time I felt I was doing two jobs and making constant compromises," he says. "Now I have compromised on just one thing. My salary. I won't be entering the Sydney property market soon but I can focus equally on both sides of my life."

Lawyers, bankers and consultants are among the ranks of the permanent part-timers who have chosen to give up a full-time salary for non-family-related reasons.

Flexibility is now a badge of pride for executives like retiring Westpac chief executive David Morgan.

"I am very proud of increasing the proportion of women in management from 25 per cent to 42 per cent in my time here. I have had direct reports of mine who have had a young family and done most of their work from home and I don't care where they work from as long as they get the job done," Morgan says.

Employers have little choice but to embrace flexible working arrangements, according to IBM Australia chief executive Glen Boreham.

"The skill shortage is chronic and that is driving companies to think differently. People are waking up to the fact we are running out of labour. Over the next 10, 20, 30 years, unemployment is just going to get lower. All companies need to look across the board at what they can do to attract and keep people. Any company with traditional working practices is sitting on a goldmine of talent, and wasting it," Boreham says.

For IBM and other players in the booming consulting space, the war for talent is very real. IBM had hoped to hire 600 new consultants in the first half of this year but could find only 500. With unemployment at historical lows, holding onto employees is a top priority.

Boreham says the company's most talented people aren't necessarily asking for pay rises, they're asking for time and flexibility. This reflects what recruitment companies advise is a global shift - for those who can afford it - to a more balanced life.

Oscar Shub, an occasional artist and a partner at law firm Allens Arthur Robinson, went from a five-day working week to four days a few years ago and has now dropped back to three days.

"People were surprised at first. I think I was the first male partner to do that but working part-time was something I had wanted to do for a long time. I spend a fair amount of my time off painting and am also involved in establishing a charity."

Shub believes his way of working will become more common.

"Attitudes are changing. People want to have a better balance between the things they do for their career and the things they want to do for their lives," Shub says.

In the last few decades, the number of people working less than 35 hours has steadily drifted lower. An ABS report from last October found seven in 10 women and 29 per cent of men choose to work in a part-time or job-share capacity. The real figure is likely to be even higher, according to Liana Gorman, co-founder of a job site dedicated to matching up people seeking part-time work with jobs.

"The ABS figures don't take into account people with two part-time jobs and we are seeing quite a lot of that, particularly from people who want to do some work in the community sector."

Gorman notes that many people have other interests they want to pursue, though employers occasionally need to be coaxed into considering a part-time option.

"This isn't a phase, it's here to stay. We had one legal firm that had been looking for months to fill a particular position. We filled the job within three days with someone who's working a four-day week. The employer was wary of the arrangement but now is convinced."

At Australia and New Zealand Banking Group, half the 21,000 staff work flexible hours in some form or another, says the bank's head of advancement for women and diversity, Fiona Krautil.

So far, relatively few have chosen to go part-time for non-family-related reasons, but Krautil says she expects that number will grow.

"We take on 300 graduates each year and we have found they have strong ideas about how, when, and where they work.

"Flexible working arrangements including part-time work are becoming more common across the workforce. It started with women and families, advanced to mature-age workers and now it extends across the workforce. It is no longer a form of special treatment extended only to particular groups," Krautil says. "In the '80s and '90s we played a bit around the edges but now we are redesigning how work is done. I mean, who works nine to five these days?"

Krautil says talent is a global issue, particularly for multinationals. "Recently in the US the investment banks were running ads encouraging women to come back to part-time work. Now that's a real turnaround. No one in the US took flexibility seriously, even a few years ago."

Four years ago, Corinne Armour was a project manager at ANZ. The job was good and so was the salary, but she felt her life was out of whack.

"Everything was focused around my career. I've always had an interest in the community sector so I took four months' leave without pay and worked with the Brotherhood of St Laurence. When I came back, I decided to take on a less challenging role to balance the work I did with community."

Armour now works three days for the bank, spends roughly one day working on her coaching business and another on community interests, which include a directorship and pro bono consulting work.

"When I started I was the only one working part-time for any reason other than family. Now I know of a few others, including two men who retired and then un-retired. So I'm not considered quite so strange now," she says.

Kristen Gallacher, co-founder of specialist recruitment firm daretwoshare, says economic and family pressures have changed the way people view work.

"We tell our clients that if they are willing to consider job-share or part-time for one staff member, they need to think about it for everyone, otherwise you will create a culture of 'us' and 'them'. It's about the job and whether a flexible structure can be accommodated; companies shouldn't discriminate between employees," Gallacher says.

The changes in employers' attitudes towards part-time work in recent years have amazed Anny Slater, a lawyer who left what was then PricewaterhouseCoopers Legal to set up her own firm in order to balance law with her other passion, writing.

At that time, in 2001, Slater says, she felt she had no alternative but to go out on her own to get the working life she wanted.

"Now it seems there are other possibilities, thanks to generations X and Y, who have different expectations than baby boomers and are changing the system from within," Slater says.

This development is confirmed by The 2007 Hudson IT&T Remuneration Guide, which paints a picture of plateauing salaries and increasing demand for flexible working conditions.

Hudson's IT&T practice leader Campbell Hepburn reports employees are joining contractors in seeking four-day weeks and remote work is also growing. Contractors are also working fewer hours.

“Despite the skills shortage in the IT & T sector, the market cannot sustain rising salaries to meet demands," says Hepburn. "This latest survey shows salaries have levelled out compared with 2006 when they increased by two to five percent.

“This is partly because businesses now accept IT & T as part of their business and it is no longer perceived as a specialist or separate area.” With additional reporting from Computerworld New Zealand

Australian Financial Review

© Fairfax Business Media

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