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part-time jobs chart
Chart shows number of Americans working part-time who want full-time jobs.
While there continue to be signs that the economy may be on the verge of moving out of the sluggishness that has afflicted it ever since growth began again in the summer of 2009, the job front remains problematic. We need 250,000 or so new jobs created each month to really make headway in putting the nation back to work again. For the past year the average has been 153,000.

With the housing market coming back in many areas of the nation, which is good news for construction, and holiday retail sales doing better than was predicted just a month ago, that average could be headed up in the next few months. But twice in the past three years, we've seemed on the verge of a period of accelerated job growth that collapsed.

Officially, 12.2 million Americans are out of work, but that number understates the situation, ignoring the 6.5 million who aren't looking but say they want a job. And then there are the underemployed, another nearly 7.9 million Americans working part-time not because they want to but because of economic conditions. Uncertainty about the future, managerial strategizing and technological gains have persuaded many employers not to put workers whose hours were reduced back on full-time status or to hire new full-time workers.

Some of this would change if the economic recovery were to stop muddling along and really take off. But some of this trend seems likely to become more deeply entrenched regardless of economic growth. Just one more example of the corporate profits and earnings of the one per centers taking the lion's share of gains.

As David Jackson at Seeking Alpha points out:

The number of part-time employment (for economic reasons) in the United States was nearly 4.7 million at the beginning of 2008. Currently, the number of part-time employed has surged to 7.8 million.

Therefore, nearly 3 million people have been employed part-time after the recession. Investors and readers might argue that employment is still being generated and income is flowing for 3 million people. I am primarily concerned because companies are skepti[c]al about the economic scenario and any visible decline in economic activity will lead to surging unemployment as part-time jobs are lost. Also, the income generated through part-time employment is relatively lower and does keep the consumer cautious. This is not good for a consumption-driven economy.

We're not talking about people who want to work part time, of whom there are many with an array of reasons. The people getting hurt are those who want a full-time job but can't wrangle one.

Read below the fold to explore part-timers' situation further and take a glance at another harmful job trend ...

Steven Greenhouse has reported on the new phenomenon. Restaurants and retailers have long used part-timers, but these days they depend on them more than in the past to cut costs, escape providing full benefits and responding to customer traffic in more focused ways they couldn't before computerized inventories made it possible:

No one has collected detailed data on part-time workers at the nation’s major retailers. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that the retail and wholesale sector, with a total of 18.6 million jobs, has cut a million full-time jobs since 2006, while adding more than 500,000 part-time jobs. [...]

The widening use of part-timers has been a bane to many workers, pushing many into poverty and forcing some onto food stamps and Medicaid. And with work schedules that change week to week, workers can find it hard to arrange child care, attend college or hold a second job, according to interviews with more than 40 part-time workers.

Another matter also is having a tremendous impact on what would otherwise be good economic news, the fact that many jobs that are being created pay less than the jobs that were lost. Laura Clawson wrote Thursday about one of the arenas in which this is a big issue: manufacturing.

That sector of the economy has been a surprising bright spot since the official end of the Great Recession, with more than half a million new jobs. But these have mostly been non-union. The average non-union factory worker made less in 2011, adjusting for inflation, than in 2009. And even union workers, like those in the now thriving auto industry that was on the skids in late 2008, are not doing so well. Entry-level workers at General Motors, for instance, earn about half what their predecessors did six years ago. Writes Clawson:

Proponents of this trend say that becoming a low-wage nation is the way for the United States to compete globally. They try to dress it up, but that's what it boils down to: Let's compete with China for bad pay and long hours. For unions, the rise of low-wage manufacturing once again highlights the importance of improving conditions for workers in even lower-wage occupations like retail and fast food—if you raise standards in these industries, low-wage manufacturing won't look as good by comparison.
Combined, these two trends, coming at a time when changing demographics—baby boom retirements, fewer 16-19 year olds in the job market—do not exactly portend a true recovery from the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. They are just more examples of how the acute problems of the Great Recession, many of them still with us, continue to deflect attention from taking action on the chronic ones.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Fri Jan 18, 2013 at 11:28 AM PST.

Also republished by Unemployment Chronicles and Daily Kos.

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