Not long ago, I received an offer to become a “temporary, part-time” faculty member at a local institution. The letter went straight to the shredder, but the thing I remember most was the section that emphasized what I was not entitled to:
- Health care
- Any other benefits
- Physical space at the university
- Tenure or progress towards tenure in any form
- Membership in any faculty organization
- Right to call myself “adjunct”
Other than that, welcome to the team.
The new permanent temporary?
Michael Schrage of MIT says to get used to it:
For most organizations, people are a means and medium to an end. They’re not hiring employees, they’re hiring value creation. If they can get that value — or most of it — from contingency workers, outsourcing, automation, innovative processes or capital investment, why wouldn’t they?
Sounds reasonable: If there’s work to do, and you can get that work done more cheaply through temps and part-timers, then why not?
This is exactly the point made by many in the restaurant business, according to an article in the Wall St. J. (paywall):
But a number of restaurants and other low-wage employers say they are increasing their staffs by hiring more part-time workers to reduce reliance on full-timers before the health-care law takes effect.
“I’d be surprised if the Affordable Care Act didn’t have something to do with” the pickup in part-time hiring, said Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics. “Companies don’t want to pay for health care unnecessarily if they can avoid it, so they’ll try to avoid it.”
Think about that next time one of these no-medical-attention servers hands you your food.
And the big bucks they’re saving?
Rod Carstensen, owner of 11 Del Taco restaurants around Denver, began in April converting his mostly full-time workforce into one comprising mostly part-time help to minimize his health-care costs. He estimates the costs could have climbed by as much as $400,000 a year without the change.
So we’re talking about $36,400/year/restaurant that this guy figures he can put into his pocket by making sure his workers don’t get heath care. Certainly sounds like where I’d like to eat. It turns out though, that the trend to part-timers, at least in the restaurant industry, better reflects the general economy, than, as the Journal would have it, some mass movement to show Obama who’s boss:
In that sense, the heightened number of part-time workers since the onset of the financial crisis reflects both the weak recovery and its potential improvement. Yes, some existing businesses are willing to restructure their workforces to avoid providing affordable insurance to their employees, but so far these reports are largely anecdotal. (Fernholtz, writing in Quartz.com)
In all of this, though, whether it reflects economics or ideology, there’s one thing missing. Schrage dances around it:
The most serious question going forward is not simply whether or how more full time jobs return, it’s whether or how part-time and temporary workers become more valuable. Will employers invest in developing the knowledge, human capital and capabilities of their contingent workforces and independent contractors? Or is the new “permanent temporary” merely about a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay?
I think the restaurant owners answered that one for you, Michael.
Kumbaya aside, is it good business?
The big question is what type of organization are you going to get? You can use Boyd’s framework to answer that. Schrage has already done one component, Fingerspitzengefühl, for you. But it might be better to start with the foundation, Einheit. For example: How fired up will our temps and part-timers be, who according to Schrage could form 75-80% of the workforce, when they’re told that no matter how well they’re doing, no matter how much customer satisfaction they’ve provided, they can’t work one minute more this week because otherwise the boss would have to shell out for health care coverage? In a competitive arena, how will such an organization fare against someone who invests in and values all team members?
I’m not saying that it’s impossible to improve the EBFAS climate with a workforce consisting largely of temps and part-timers, although any organization with two castes of employees is going to find Einheit a challenge. Not one of the articles I’ve read on the subject of temps and part-timers, however, suggests that employers are converting full-time positions to part-time in order to make their organizations work better.
As an aside, “part-time” is different than “temp,” of course. Part-time work shouldn’t be an issue, even in an organization run according to Boyd’s framework, if a couple of simple criteria are met:
- Everyone on the team is a full team member, with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto; and
- Rewards/compensation are generally seen as fair by all team members, which should mean that they are commensurate with output (contribution to achieving the team’s purposes and objectives) and not just to input (e.g., hours/week). You may have to exercise some leadership here, but that’s why you get the big bucks.
I wouldn’t (and haven’t) hired temps.
It might be worth pondering that Toyota’s problems came to light about the time that the company began relying more on temps and less on their highly trained, permanent workforce.
Schrage wraps up with a witty aphorism from the “brilliant” (his description) Larry Summers*: “In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car.” This is bullshit and shame on you if you nodded your head while reading it — driving around in a poorly maintained car reflects badly on me, whether I mail the check to the bank or the rental car company, and I’ve run short-term rentals through the car wash when I’m on the way to pick up a client. Still, to give the man his due, it’s hard to believe that business will see investment in the skills of part-time and temporary workers as their best use of corporate cash.
Strategy you can use
One of the bedrocks of Boyd’s framework is that you don’t have to be perfect, only better than your competition. So if your competitors do dumb things, now is the time to pounce. In that vein, Schrage closes with an intriguing thought, “My bet? Underemployed assets are frequently undervalued assets. Undervalued assets attract savvy investors and entrepreneurs. Prepare for the next New Permanent Temporary.”
He neglects, unfortunately, to say what that means. So I will. It means that organizations that see employees as a “means to value creation,” along with raw materials and rent, costs to be minimized in other words, will lose out to their smarter rivals.
I’ll end with a better quote than Summers’s: A mind is a terrible thing to waste.
*As Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of the Treasury and then as Secretary, Summers was a driving force behind deregulation of the derivatives market and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, two measures widely blamed for the financial crash (and massive bailouts) of 2008-2009.