The Hazy Definition of Part-time vs. Full-time
The definition of part-time is like the definition of beauty. It depends on the viewpoint of the one who's doing the defining. The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines part-time work as anything from one to 34 hours per week. That provides the BLS with a clear benchmark for analyzing data about part-time jobs, employees and wages. But individual companies are free to define part-time themselves, and they do. What it means to be a part-time student is equally hazy. It's different for undergrads and grad students, and every school can define part-time in its own way. The IRS and financial aid providers take their definition from the schools. Whether you're looking to enroll in school or find a job, be sure to ask for their definition of part-time before moving forward.
Ask Each Employer What Part-Time Means
Since there is no clear federal or state rule or definition that defines part-time, every employer can decide that according to their needs. Part-time may be anything less than 37 hours per week at one business, and 35 at another. Maybe the business only needs you on weekends when it's the busiest. Or, you work full, eight-hour days Thursday through Sunday and it sure feels like you're working full-time. But since that adds up to only 32 hours for the week, you're still part-time.
This is key for employers, because most don't pay part-time workers benefits like health insurance or paid time off for sick days or vacation. You work at their pleasure and are only paid for days worked. So if they need you to fill in for two weeks while a full-time staffer is on vacation, you don't suddenly receive benefits; you're still a part-time worker. Before taking any job, then, it's important to ask what hours you'll be working, and if you'll be considered full-time or part-time.
The Lure of Part-Time Work
Given that part-time workers bring home a smaller salary than their full-time peers in the same job, and typically don't receive medical or other benefits like their full-time associates, what's the benefit to working part-time? Hmm...more money on the one hand, less money on the other. But money isn't the only determining factor in choosing a work schedule. Some respondents to a survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics said they worked part-time because work in their occupation was lacking. Others said part-time work was all they could find; they'd work full-time if they could. Working parents know that a part-time schedule would give them more time at home. Like many areas of parenthood, it's a balancing act.
Number of Part-Time Workers Has Declined
In the third quarter of 2017, fewer people revved up their cars or hopped on the bus to a part-time job, compared with the same quarter in 2016. That's 23,785,000 workers aged 16 and over who worked part-time in 2017, down from 23,973,000 in 2016 for the same quarter, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics news release. The median weekly earnings for men and women age 16 and up was $266 in 2017. Those age 25 and over tended to earn more; $310 for women and $300 for men. For ages 16-24, women earned $208 to men's $217.
Part-Time Jobs that Really Pay
The salary you earn, full-time or part-time, is largely dependent on the field you're in. However, the National Compensation Survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed part-time jobs that pay over $20 an hour. Some don't even require a college degree. For example, diagnostic medical sonographers can earn $31.73 per hour part-time; and respiratory therapists $29.35 per hour. Both require just an associate's degree, which takes about two years to earn. Executive secretaries and executive administrative assistants can earn $20.15 per hour with only a high school degree and a few years of work experience in the field.
What's a Part-Time Student, Anyway?
Part-time students may feel like they're going to school full-time, probably because their lives are full with work or parenting—or both. Although part-time status is determined by each school, the general standard is that an undergraduate student taking 12 credit-hours or more per term or semester is considered full-time; fewer than that is considered part-time. For grad students, nine credit hours usually counts as full-time. Some schools have three time definitions. For example, The George Washington University in Washington, DC defines grad students taking nine or more credits as full-time, those taking five to eight credits half-time, and anyone taking less than five credits is considered part-time.
The ramifications of being part-time vs. full-time can be huge. Full-time students usually pay a flat fee for tuition per semester, while part-time students pay a hefty fee per credit hour instead. The amount of financial aid a student receives also depends on whether she is attending school full-time or part-time. Financial aid organizations, banks and the IRS use the particular school's definition of part-time.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Economic News Release: Employed Persons by Class of Worker and Part-time Status
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Economic News Release:Table 6 Median Usual Weekly Earnings of Part-time Wage and Salary Workers...
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Career Outlook: Part-Time Jobs That Pay More Than $20 Per Hour
- The George Washington University: Full-time vs. Part-time Students
- Boise State University: Minimum Credits for Aid
Barbara Bean-Mellinger is an award-winning writer in the Washington, DC area. She writes nationally for newspapers, magazines and websites on topics including careers, education, women, marketing, advertising and more. She holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of Pittsburgh.