Utah's part-time employment rate returning to historic highs
Eric Paulsen is 26, single and a full-time student at the University of Utah studying comparative literature and creative writing.
When he isn't studying or in class, Paulsen holds down two part-time jobs. Mondays through Fridays, he puts in 25 hours a week at a law firm in Salt Lake City. On weekends, he waits tables for eight hours at a restaurant in Taylorsville.
Paulsen swears the pace is worth it.
"The reason I work two part-time jobs is because I have a lot of ambition for school. Not only do I not want to obtain [student] loans right now, I also want to accumulate money for future school endeavors," he said.
Admirable as it is, Paulsen's story is unremarkable. His is just one face in a growing legion of Utah workers who support themselves or their families with part-time jobs.
Utah has one of the highest ratios of part-time to full-time employment in the country. In 2012, almost one in four (24.7 percent) employed Utahns worked 35 hours or less, according to the Department of Workforce Services. That's roughly 327,000 people out of a total of about 1.33 million employed workers. By contrast, 19.4 percent (one in five) of all people with jobs in the U.S. were part-timers last year.
"It is exhausting," Paulsen acknowledged, though he is far from unhappy about his situation. "It also feels gratifying to know that I have the ability to not only work two jobs, but also to go to school and to support myself."
The percentage of Utahns employed in part-time jobs has come up sharply since 2007, when the figure was 20 percent and the Great Recession was about to start. Experts are trying to understand why the ratio of full to part-time employment has narrowed so much since then, and what it means. On the surface, it looks like the vaunted jobs recovery that's taken place in Utah since the recession ended isn't as stellar as everyone from Gov. Gary Herbert to the media have portrayed it.
But James Robson, an economist at the Workforce Services department, notes that the 2012 figure isn't high by historical standards. As recently as 2004, the percentage was 25.4 percent, and the average since 2000 is 23.4 percent.
What's more, the 2007 figure was the lowest percentage since at least 1997 and probably earlier. (Robson didn't immediately have older data.)
Robson said Utah's unique demographic makeup is probably behind the large percentage part-time workers. It may also account for the large gap between Utah and U.S. part-time employment rates, he said.
"We do have the youngest population in the country. Part of that gap [between Utah and the U.S.] would be explained by teens in the labor force. Between the ages of 16 and 24, we have many more young people who would tend to have part-time jobs," he said.
Robson extends that thinking a step further. At 3.1 people, the average size of a Utah household is the largest in the nation. With lots of children at home, many Utah women have a "propensity" to seek part-time employment, he said. Slightly more than one in three (35 percent) working Utah women has a part-time job. By contrast, across the U.S., 26 percent work less than 35 hours.
Natalie Gochnour, the Salt Lake Chamber's chief economist and associate dean of the University of Utah's business school, said the cost of supporting Utah's large family sizes "requires" many mothers to work outside their homes.
"It's fair to say that many women have a strong preference to be at home with their children. It is also fair to say that as a consequence, of the women who do work outside the home, many choose reduced working hours," she said.
Utah men sometimes work part-time to support their families. Andrew Warby, 34, works about 20 evening hours a week delivering pizza. He took the job a year ago, so that he could care for his son at home and build his furniture import business while his wife works full time for the state of Utah.
"It helps keep a little money in our pockets so we don't have to pay for child care," said Warby, though he admits it isn't easy being a part-time businessman and a part-time caregiver.
"I'd rather focus all of my efforts on either running my household or running my small business," he said. "I do it for economic reasons, to pay the bills. But it isn't easy."
What isn't clear is whether the steady rise in part-time work during the past six years is likely to go higher, which would suggest the economy has changed, and probably for the worse. If it stabilizes, it probably means the economy has returned to more normal conditions, Robson said.
James Wood, director of the U.'s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, said he hopes part-time employment doesn't get more dominant.
"I think we would be better off if we had less part-time and more full-time. That's one way we could improve household incomes [in Utah], if some of the part-timers moved to full-time," Wood said.