Committing to Part-Timers

By Apr 1, 2007
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HR Magazine, April 2007A credit union's special focus on part-time employees offers a case study on how to make such workers productive members of the team

Customers want service at all hours of the day—and night. Employees want to achieve balance between time on the job and time for their personal lives. What’s an employer to do?

One way, of course, to provide service during the hours that don’t appeal to full-time, long-term workers is to hire part-time workers. For some employers, part-timers are important to the overall business plan, and they’re treated not as add-ons to the payroll but as important contributors integrated into the overall workforce. Digital Federal Credit Union (DCU), headquartered in Marlborough, Mass., has been weaving its part-time staff into its operations for years. DCU, which has 547 employees—105 of whom work part time—has learned that its methods of recruiting, scheduling and treating part-time workers are crucial for attracting good candidates and for keeping part-time employees coming back.

Cindy Romano, PHR, the credit union’s manager of HR, says the company’s success with its part-time workforce stems from two corporate traits. First, DCU treats part-time employees as respected members of the team—worth the company’s investments in recruitment and training, and, DCU hopes, willing to return. Second, Romano says, DCU provides a generous, competitive benefits package that part-time workers find attractive.

Clearly, DCU is doing something right in managing its staff. In 2006, for the third straight year, the company was named one of the 50 Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America by the Great Place to Work Institute in a recognition program sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Meeting Customer Demand

Organizations such as DCU turn to part-time staffing for many reasons, but chiefly for greater flexibility, says Lisa Bordinat, senior vice president and director of consulting services for Aon Consulting’s Talent Solutions Group in Southfield, Mich. “It’s really a business decision that allows organizations to be more nimble from a staffing perspective,” Bordinat says. Managing a part-time or contingent workforce, she says, allows organizations to incur employment costs only when they need to—when demand for their products or services is high.

Part-time employment is a major characteristic of the economy, as seasonally adjusted figures from the U.S.

Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate. This past January about 24 million people held part-time jobs, up slightly from about 23.8 million in January 2006. By comparison, there were about 146 million people in full-time jobs last January.

DCU’s use of part-time staff, Romano says, is the result of a strategic decision aimed at helping to meet member needs during periods of high demand. “Instead of having someone here for the whole day, we look at what the busy times are, and we’re able to fill those times with our part-time staff,” she says.

DCU is a not-for-profit, member-owned financial services provider serving 280,000 members and their families in all 50 states. Most of the credit union’s part-time staff members work in the call center—DCU refers to it as the Information Center—and in branches.

DCU looked at the periods during which, according to members, service hours should be extended, and then the company structured its part-time schedule accordingly. Branches are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. DCU designed a part-time schedule to cover Thursday and Friday evenings until 7 and Saturdays from 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

There’s also a schedule for part-timers to serve as lunchtime tellers or as lunchtime member service representatives. These part-timers work from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays and are also required to work every other Saturday.

Romano says the lunchtime schedules are a bit easier to fill—despite the Saturday requirement—because it involves no evening hours and doesn’t require work every Saturday.

The Information Center’s flexible schedules allow coverage on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with more than 120 employees—about one-third of them part-timers—responding to calls, e-mails and live web chats.

“There’s a lot of flexibility here,” Romano says of the Information Center, “and it’s based on when the volume of calls is the highest. We analyze that and develop schedules based on when the need is.”

DCU also hires part-time staff members to fill in during summer months and holiday seasons when full-time employees want vacations. “We usually hire 10 additional float staff to cover the branches during the summer when people are on vacation,” Romano says.

Bringing Them In

DCU’s challenge is to fill these work schedules to meet members’ needs while also accommodating work/life preferences of its full-time employees, who may not be enthusiastic about working Friday evenings or Saturday mornings. The solution: DCU recruits people who find that “off hours” meet their own personal needs. Students, for example, may prefer evening and weekend work, while retirees or parents of school-age children may find midday working hours attractive.

DCU recruits extensively among college students and is active at job fairs and other recruitment events at local colleges, Romano says. Other willing part-timers are people who want a second job, such as teachers who want to work at times when school is out of session.

Even high schoolers are potential recruits: DCU is developing a program that it will take into high schools this spring to talk about career opportunities at the credit union—part-time opportunities for those going on to college and full-time opportunities for those who wish to enter the workforce immediately.

A Key to the Process

Not all employers target part-time recruiting as DCU does. Bordinat notes that organizations often don’t establish any strategy for part-time staffing and instead simply “evolve into their staffing model” over time.

A recruiting process is a key element of a part-time staffing strategy, Bordinat says, because the potential part-time workforce “is a different segment of the workforce—it’s typically younger or older and typically motivated by different things.” Moreover, she says, it “is not an easy market to tap into from a recruiting perspective.” There’s competition for part-time workers.

Romano says that in most communities there are a lot of options for part-time work and that credit unions such as DCU find themselves competing with businesses across many sectors.

DCU finds its generous benefits are important to recruitment success. “Basically, if you work 20 hours or more, you get the same benefits the full-timers do, except they’re prorated,” Romano says. Benefits available to part-timers include health and dental insurance, life insurance, the opportunity to participate in the 401(k) plan (for employees who work 1,250 hours per year), prorated sick days, and vacation and holiday pay if the holiday falls during a time they would normally be scheduled to work.

The credit union’s reputation as a good employer, reflected in its “best companies” status, is recognized in its recruitment efforts for all positions, including part-time jobs. Yet despite targeted recruitment attempts, attractive benefits and a good public reputation, DCU finds that filling part-time slots “has been a challenge,” Romano says.

Getting Up to Speed

There’s no magic bullet for recruiting or supervising part-time employees, Romano says. DCU emphasizes the importance of respecting part-timers as part of the team, both by training them extensively and by maintaining ongoing relationships with them in hopes they’ll keep coming back, she says.

DCU doesn’t cut corners on training part-time staff, even for new staffers who are likely to be on board for only a few months.

Training at DCU is extensive, and the requirements for part-timers are the same as those for full-timers: New Information Center staff members participate in four weeks of full-time training. Staff members in other parts of the organization participate in at least two weeks of full-time training.

Most of DCU’s part-time staffers are able to commit to this training program, says Romano. For those who are not, the credit union offers other options, including a condensed version of training in the evenings and on Saturdays. College students often are trained during breaks in their academic schedules in anticipation of need for the summer months.

When it comes to training, Bordinat notes, companies such as DCU recognize that they need to “do the exact same things they’ve always done, but they might need to be more flexible in terms of how long it might take someone to get all the training to be proficient and in terms of creative ways of offering that training.”

Firms looking to train part-timers might consider online training options, for example, or breaking an eight-hour training session into four two-hour sessions, Bordinat says.

Turnover Is a Given

DCU recognizes that many of its part-timers simply don’t intend to work full time. Many don’t intend to stay with one employer for years, either, like the students for whom DCU is just a stop along the way. And there will be turnover. In the past year, the credit union has had 43 voluntary separations of part-time workers and one involuntary separation.

But recognizing the inevitability of part-time turnover doesn’t prevent DCU from nurturing relationships with part-timers to maximize the value of the time they do spend with the credit union and to keep them coming back, according to Romano. “The first year we may get only two months out of them,” she says, “but it’s worth it.”

Bordinat supports developing relationships with part-timers. Making a commitment to nurture a part-time workforce to the extent that DCU does requires understanding the potential costs involved when turnover occurs. But those costs, as DCU has found, can be offset by the added commitment and loyalty of the part-time workers.

Moreover, Bordinat says, the workplace relationship between employees and supervisors—crucial, she says, for ensuring productivity and retention—applies to part-time employees. Spending time with them and giving them feedback, she says, “are the things that motivate employees to keep them really engaged with the organization. Supervisors need to understand that.”

The bottom line, Bordinat adds, is not leaving the issue to chance, but strategically and proactively making decisions about what you expect from your part-time workforce. If you have a large contingent or part-time workforce, she says, “you might decide it’s OK to have higher turnover—you’re investing less, so shorter tenure is OK.”

If you don’t want to accept higher turnover levels, then you need to consider ways of hiring that can help you achieve longevity, perhaps using selection tools that help predict how long a particular employee may stay.

DCU establishes relationships with college students during their first year of college, or even during high school, as a way to lengthen the part-time relationship. It’s not unusual, Romano says, for “DCU summer temps” to enjoy their experience so much that they ask about part-time work during the school year.

Welcome Back

Romano re-recruits part-timers each year by sending out letters to those she hopes will consider returning to DCU. Not only does this approach generate follow-up calls and interest, but it’s one more way that DCU sends the message to part-timers that it values them and their contributions to the credit union, she says.

Part-timers who return to DCU get bonuses and refresher training; they are not required to undergo the two to four weeks of training given to new employees. “They enjoy coming back, and they feel like they’re part of the organization,” Romano says.

Retention and re-recruitment are also bolstered by involvement. Part-time staff members are included in all credit union employee activities, and even “DCU summer temps” are invited back in January to the employee appreciation dinner.

“We try to make their experience with us as positive as it can be because we want them to come back, and a lot of them do,” Romano says. “They enjoy it here. … They’re very important in our organization.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of “Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function” (SHRM, 2002).

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