Part-Timers: More Gain Than Pain

Print More

Charleston, W.Va.—Missy Miller happily serves as membership manager here at the Charleston Family YMCA, but she still plans a career in crime.

As a forensics investigator, that is, which she studied for in college. In many ways, Miller is typical of youth workers all over this blue-collar Southern city: the recent accounting graduate who supervises kids at a child welfare home, the Jobs Corps staffer who puts in a few hours a week at an emergency youth shelter, and the aspiring baseball team chaplain who mans the front desk at the Y.

They are all part-timers – the likes of whom carry out a surprisingly large portion of the nation’s youth work.

For years, the field’s reliance on part-timers has been considered an inconvenience to be overcome. Increasingly, however, part-timers are being recognized as a permanent, core element of the work force, and as an asset that should be better managed and cultivated.

“There will always be a role and need for part-time youth development staff,” says Jenny Wright, director of the Minneapolis Beacons Network, a collaboration of Beacon schools. “It’s important for both [the workers and their employers] that it’s presented as a profession.”

Recent surveys of youth workers by the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition found that about half of the respondents were part-timers, and many of them were happy about it. The national average of part-timers across industries, Next Generation says, is 20 percent.

“Recognizing that a relatively stable, relatively well-educated group of workers appear interested in part-time work is important as organizations and systems think about recruiting, retaining and supporting staff,” says a coalition study, “Growing the Next Generation of Youth Professionals.”

Relying on part-timers, however, poses special challenges in recruitment, training and retention. Finding and keeping part-timers is “a constant struggle,” says Dennis Pease as he sits in Patchwork, a child welfare shelter here that is run by his nonprofit, Daymark.

Agencies are trying various tactics to overcome that struggle. A YMCA in Texas pays bonuses to seasonal part-timers who return each year. In lieu of adding part-timers to its health plan, Campfire USA’s Alaska council recently started paying some of them $50 when they go to a doctor. The Children’s Aid Society developed a career path for part-timers that includes heftier pay, job titles and responsibilities.

The key to strengthening the part-time work force is understanding where they fit into youth work and how youth work fits into their lives. Over the past several months, part-timers and agency managers discussed such challenges by interview and e-mail.

Why Hire Part-Timers?

The need: In New York, the Children’s Aid Society says part-timers account for 600 of the 675 employees in its community schools division, which runs after-school programs. But if a foundation offered Jane Quinn millions of dollars to convert them all to full-time, she’d probably turn it down.

After-school programs need workers for just a few hours each day. “We can’t just turn those jobs into full-time jobs,” says Quinn, the assistant executive director for community schools. “What are those people going to be doing during the day?”

The same applies to summer programs, many of which offer full-time hours, but for only two or three months.

Filling gaps: Residential programs need part-timers with flexible hours to work holidays, night and weekends, and to come in on short notice when an employee calls in sick or when a sudden influx of youths creates a need for more staff.

At Patchwork, the emergency shelter in Charleston, Pease says the agency’s government contract requires one staffer for every five youth at the facility – and those staffers have to have the right social work credentials. “We need credentialed people, but we don’t need them full time,” says Pease, the executive director of Daymark. “We need relief workers.”

Easier to find: At the 10-bed Davis Child Shelter in Charleston, Supervisor Cynthia Jett split some full-time positions into several part-time positions. The reason: It was too difficult to find people with the necessary qualifications who were willing to work full time for the pay offered by the child welfare facility, which houses boys and girls for up to 90 days after their removal from home. “This is a very difficult job,” she says.

It’s easier, she says, to find qualified workers who can only spare a few hours a week. And if a part-timer doesn’t work out, the slot is easier to fill.

Saving money: Most part-timers are paid less than full-timers and don’t get company benefits, like health insurance.

Why Work Part Time?

One striking finding in the Next Generation study was that many part-timers – about 40 percent – want to work part time. Eighty percent said they are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their jobs.

Staffers often echo the words of Joe Mike, who works at the front desk and the summer camp at the YMCA of Charleston, who said, “Part time is perfect for me.”

Here’s why:

Flexibility: College students find it particularly attractive to have a job where they can change their hours depending on the demands of their school work. At the Davis Child Shelter, part-timer Christina Turner sometimes had to cut back on her hours while working on the accounting and management degree that she completed this spring at West Virginia University. “I could call to say, ‘I have a really big paper’ ” and need to work less at the shelter, she says.

On the other hand, she notes that when school was less busy, “I could swell my hours if I wanted to, I could do an internship, hold another job.”

It’s a job: Many part-time youth workers came to their jobs not because of a life plan to work with youth, but because they wanted part-time work of just about any kind. Miller says that when she began working in the nursery at the Charleston Y six years ago, when she was in high school, it was “just a job,” albeit a fun one.

The seven Beacon centers coordinated by the Minneapolis Beacons Network routinely bring in people who are not youth workers to focus on specific activities, such as art. “We work with some musicians and artists from the community, and this can be a really good fit for them,” says Wright, the network director. Many of them work at night or on weekends, so it’s convenient for them to earn a few extra dollars on weekday afternoons.

Similarly, teachers often work part time in after-school programs, because they’re already at the school and it provides a relatively easy few extra dollars.

Building careers: For some, part-time youth work does fit into their career plans. For example, Tommy Woodson-Hall, program coordinator for youth and family at the Charleston Y, wants to be a child psychologist.

For young people who plan to be teachers, working at a youth agency can help them eventually land jobs in schools. Richard Negron, director of community schools at Children’s Aid, says, “We have a number of instances where young people who began with us handing out the snacks” in an after-school program “are now teachers,” sometimes in the schools where they worked for Children’s Aid.

Life Changes: The Next Generation study found a small wave of people who started youth work in their 40s. Some lost jobs they’d held for years, some wanted a career change, and some were re-entering the work force after staying home to raise children.

For instance, Gary Hunt majored in social work at college, but life took him on some turns. He left college, worked part-time as a drummer in a band, got married, had two children and pursued a career in sales and management.

In 1999, his company went out of business. The 45-year-old went job hunting and took the first offer he got: working part-time with kids at the Davis Child Shelter. Hunt is now a full-time shift supervisor.

Don’t need much: Many part-timers just want to supplement their income from full-time jobs. At the Patchwork shelter, the part-timers include a Job Corps staffer and an elementary school counselor.

Working part time “fits with their chosen life situation,” Pease says.

Drawbacks for Agencies

A part-time staff poses special challenges for agency managers. In a work force study last year, the National AfterSchool Association found trouble in the fact that “many of these [part-time] workers are relatively unskilled and are not looking for a long-term career in these jobs. … While they enjoy working with children and youth, they think of afterschool as a great job, not a profession.”

“If we had our druthers, we probably wouldn’t work with part-time staff,” says Jim Doncaster, senior director of organizational development at Pittsburgh-based Pressley Ridge, which runs residential and non-residential youth programs in eight states. Only 134 of its 1,008 workers are part-time. Doncaster cites turnover and staff training requirements as the main drawbacks.

Turnover: This is the most common problem. “We find ourselves continually recruiting,” writes Rebecca Ahouse, coordinator of youth development services at Wayne Finger Lakes BOCES in Waterloo, N.Y. She estimates that 80 percent of the staff at her job training program is part-time.

Many part-timers are bound to leave from the moment they arrive. College students go back to school or start their careers at other jobs. It happens each fall at the Davis Child Shelter, and “it takes three to four months to get back up to speed with staffing,” says Jett, the supervisor.

Others leave for full-time work. “Seventy-five percent of the people I hire want full-time,” says Hunt at the Davis shelter.

Several workers at the shelter began as part-timers, such as Hunt, but there are more full-time opportunities at large organizations and those that are part of multi-site networks, like the YMCA and Pressley Ridge. At the Charleston Y, many of the full-timers began part-time. They include Jim Harris, the associate executive director, who began in 1997 as a part-timer in the camp and after-school program.

As always in youth work, pay looms as an issue. At the nine-bed Stepping Stone child welfare shelter in Fairmont, W. Va., part-timers start at $7 an hour, says Executive Director Heather Gallagher. She says workers leave “because this does not pay anything.”

Qualifications: For agencies that require certain credentials or significant training, finding part-timers who meet the qualifications can be difficult. The worker pool is small to begin with, and those with the qualifications tend to be working full time.

Patchwork, for instance, needs licensed social workers for even its part-time positions. One strategy: Administrators look for full-timers at other agencies who might want to add a little to their income. “They have the credentials,” Pease explains.

Training: Because of the high turnover among part-timers, Ahouse at BOCES speak for lots of agency mangers when she writes, “We are in a perpetual ‘catch-up’ mode on training.”

Training part-timers can create a disproportionate demand on agency resources. “We have the same training requirements” for part-timers as full-timers, says Doncaster at Pressley Ridge. But “it’s a lot harder to get them [part-timers] into trainings, because of other endeavors they pursue outside the organization.”

On the other hand, some agencies skimp on training part-timers, figuring they’re not around much and will leave anyway. That drags down the quality of youth work. “We need to prepare them in much the same way we prepare a full-time person,” says Pam Garza, director of the National Youth Development Learning Network at the National Collaboration for Youth.

Scheduling: That flexibility that people like so much in part-time jobs means that employers have to try to accommodate them in order to keep them. Creating a staff schedule with part-timers is “like putting together a big puzzle,” says Hunt, who does monthly schedules for about nine part-timers at the Davis Children’s Shelter. He starts by putting out a calendar for the staffers to mark times when they are not available.

Keeping them active: Managers like Hunt can’t just fill in time slots with the most qualified workers or those who are most available. He must keep using everyone often enough to keep them interested in working there.

At the Patchwork shelter, Pease notes, “We have to be calling fairly regularly to keep them on our list” of relief workers, “so they are available when you need them.”