Part-time jobs scarce in IT

Experts cite unique demands of profession for lack of 20-hour-a-week opportunities

The availability of part-time IT positions lags behind other professions, but employers may need to consider such flexibility to attract sparse talent

The lazy days of summer might have you thinking about how nice it would be to cut back on your work hours -- permanently. However, unlike many professions where opportunities for part-time workers are growing steadily, most employers would rather their IT staff work more hours, not fewer.

Due to the nature of supporting technology users, which because of its urgency and complexity is often more than a full-time job, and the fact that there are almost more available jobs than IT professionals -- technology job placement firm Robert Half Technologysays the IT unemployment rate is less than 2 % -- companies are less apt to let a valuable IT professional cut back on hours than, say, an accountant or marketer.

Case in point; on Aug. 1 CareerBuilder.com listed 717 part-time positions in IT, while there were 1,718 part-time accounting positions available and 4,815 part-time nursing positions.

“IT problems are 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” says Ilyse Shapiro, founder of MyPartTimePro.com, a Web site launched in March designed to connect experienced professionals in a variety of industries with employers looking for part-time, flexible, virtual or seasonal employees. Shapiro says there are very few companies looking for permanent, part-time IT help. “With BlackBerries and laptops, everybody is working 24 hours a day, so I’m not seeing as many part-time positions as I would like to in this field.”

One IT professional says that because the job isn’t task-based -- rarely is something truly "finished" in IT -- it’s difficult to quantify the work involved, and therefore hard to come up with a scaled-back version of the position.

“A big component of IT work is ongoing support, even after the project or task is completed, which doesn’t lend itself…to part-time help,” says Richard Cummins, director of the technology services group with Community Medical Centers’ corporate information systems in Fresno, Calif. Another issue is the frequency with which IT professionals need to be trained and retrained. “To remain competitive in the IT market, especially as an engineer, it requires a lot of hands-on training on a full-time basis.”

Another reason that may contribute to the scarcity of part-time IT jobs is the abundance of contract or project-based work available. MyPartTimePro.com's Shapiro believes this is because technology needs can be very specific -- an XML developer or Oracle database administrator, for example -- and employers often want the flexibility to bring on a skilled professional with the sole purpose of completing a project, instead of having to train someone on staff.

Occasionally companies will hire extra IT workers with limited hours to provide additional support on a help desk, says Brian Gabrielson], vice president with Robert Half Technology, especially those companies with customer-facing help desks that need more workers during crunch times. And growing companies with changing needs may hire a part-time IT professional before they see the need for a full-time staffer. But otherwise there is little demand from either employers or job seekers for part-time IT positions, he says.

While many trained and experienced IT professionals have reasons to avoid full-time employment -- needing to care for children or elderly, wanting to take partial retirement, or preferring to work from home -- few employees are developing positions intended to be both part time and permanent, Shapiro says. Instead what often happens is a job applicant or existing employee proposes the idea of working part time, which often results in squeezing the responsibilities of a full-time position into less than 40 hours a week, she says.

According to one career analyst, the availability of part-time permanent IT positions has more to do with the culture of a given employer than the nature of the job.

“Whether or not an organization can use part-time jobs is a part of its imagination,” says Diane Morello, vice president with Gartner. “The question is whether an organization has any interest in hiring part-time [workers], more than whether the job is suitable for it.”

But with such a low unemployment rate among IT professionals, companies that don’t traditionally hire part-time professionals will have to start becoming more flexible if they want to attract talent, Robert Half’s Gabrielson adds.

“That low rate has got to get people thinking creatively about the problem,” he says.

During these first few months of MyPartTimePro.com’s existence, Shapiro says she winds up doing a lot of educating about the benefits of part-time professionals when approaching companies about posting jobs on her site, which currently focuses on positions available in the New York to Philadelphia corridor, but plans to extend nationally by year-end.

“I’m trying to open their eyes … they might be fully staffed now, but in six months or a year or two years they might not be,” she says. “There are retirees, mothers, caregivers, huge populations of people who have tremendous experience, but just can’t work full time.”

Meanwhile, other industries that are experiencing or are soon to experience employment shortfalls have looked to part-time professionals to meet their needs, particularly healthcare, law and accounting, she says. For example, many law firms have chosen to keep former full-time employees that want to go part time rather than incur the expense of retraining new workers -- an example that employers in need of IT help could learn from.

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