Recent Jump in Part time Employment is Not a Reflection of Deteriorating Job Quality

  • January 29, 2014

By Ken Peacock

Amid soft labour market conditions in BC last year, some concerns emerged about the quality of jobs being created in the province. In particular, an increase in the number of part-time jobs in the latter months of year was seen as an indication that people were unable to find a full-time job and settling for part-time work.

The reality, however, is that while the data do show a sizable jump in the number of people working part-time at the end of 2013, so far it is a short-term phenomenon. December’s unusually large increase is likely attributable to statistical fluctuations that occur with sampling rather than to a large and sudden shift towards part-time employment. Taking a somewhat longer-term view, it should be noted that part-time jobs in BC have generally trended down since early 2011.

Tracking the growth paths of both full- and part-time employment shows that, as a result of gains between mid-2011 and mid-2012, full-time employment has grown more quickly than part-time employment (the graph below depicts the series indexed to 100 at the beginning of 2010). At least this is true looking at three month moving averages, which are better able to capture underlying trends. The one-month spike in part-time employment in December does put part-time job growth from early 2010 to December 2013 ahead of full-time employment. However, looking at the average level for the year, part-time employment actually fell slightly in 2013 (by about 9,000, or 1.8%), while full time employment inched ahead (by about 5,500 or 0.3%). The underlying trend and annual averages indicate that part-time employment is not rising at the expense of full-time jobs.

The ratio of part-time employment to total employment confirms the province’s labour market has not tilted materially towards part-time jobs. In 2013, 21.4% of all jobs in BC were part-time, which is a bit lower than 21.8 % in 2012 and 22.6% in 2011. Over the past decade, the low point for this ratio was around 2007-2008, when it stood at 20.4%. Even at the end of a period of strong job growth right before the 2008-09 recession, about one in five BC workers was employed on a part-time basis.

It is interesting to note that BC consistently has the highest share of part-time workers among the provinces, which reflects personal preferences as well as some structural labour market issues that do result in BC having a comparatively high share of people working part-time when they would prefer full-time employment.

For many people, working part time is a choice. In fact, in BC about half of all part-timers cite personal preference, or the fact they are also attending college/university, as the reason they are working part-time. Caring for children is the third most common reason given for choosing to work part-time (about 15% of all part-time workers).

From a labour market and job quality perspective, “involuntary” part-time employment is really what policy makers should be concerned about. If a person is seeking full-time employment but unable to secure it, this is a form of underemployment. It also means incomes are lower than they otherwise would be. If involuntary part-time work is becoming more prevalent, it would suggest that labour market conditions are deteriorating. But in BC the absolute number of involuntary part-time workers has fallen over the past couple of years. And as a share of all total employment, involuntary part-time is down from where it stood two or three years ago. Compared to other provinces, BC does have a fairly high proportion of involuntary part-time employment. Only Ontario and Nova Scotia have a higher incidence of this phenomenon in their workforces.

Bottom line is there is little persuasive evidence that that part-time employment is rising and “job quality” is deteriorating in the province. The spike in the number of part-time workers in December of last year is a bit of a statistical anomaly and will likely prove to be temporary. More importantly, involuntary part-time work has declined. BC does have a relatively high incidence of involuntary part-time work, but this has been the case for many years and speaks more to structural factors than recent cyclical changes