Vanessa Madrid is 43 years old. There’s a spring-green sculpture above her small kitchen table. It’s her art. Inspired by gingko leaves… and the broad butt of one of her friends.
“Every time I look at it, it makes me smile,” she says. “It’s a joyful piece, which I think most of my work is definitely joyful.”
Vanessa is a college art teacher. It’s part-time, temporary work. She’s an adjunct.
We’ve heard the stories: The retail worker, fighting to get hours. The manual laborer, unsure of where their next job will come from. It isn’t just blue-collar jobs any more — insecure employment is becoming a fact of life for people in all walks of life. And as precarious work spreads, it’s creating a different type of consumer. One without the ability to plan for the future.
“Once you teach at a college you’ve made it,” she says. “Well, on one level, yes you have, and while you may get respect, you may not get paid.”
Teaching to make it
Universities have gone the way of Wal-Mart, hiring more and more part timers. They’re a whole lot cheaper than their tenured colleagues. Today, more than six in ten college teaching jobs are filled by temporary professors and grad students.
“It’s about 1:25,” Vanessa says. “We are headed to Riverside City College.”
Her job is an hour-and-a-half from her apartment in Los Angeles. She packs a cooler with her dinner in it, and we get in her car.
This semester she’s teaching two classes — both basic drawing — two days a week. They pay for her rent-controlled apartment, basic bills, a small studio. But that’s pretty much it.
“Thinking about making any long term plans,” she says, “it’s really impossible.”
She does her laundry at her parents’ house. She can’t afford to travel.
“I would also like at some point be able to move out of my little apartment and into a house, but if I keep doing what I’m doing, I’ll never be able to do that,” she says.
When she didn’t have enough teaching work, she got a retail job and kept her fingers crossed that none of her students spotted her.
Teaching, without security, has also made a big life decision for her.
“At some point I had to think about having kids, and it’s not been financially feasible for me to support anybody besides myself.”
Vanessa, or anyone with part-time, temporary work, can’t plan, can’t act, can’t consume… with the future in mind. It’s a group that is growing.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly eight million people who’d want to work full-time have part time jobs instead.
Arne Kalleberg is a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “Good Jobs, Bad Jobs.” He says precarious work got its start in the U.S. back in the ’70s.
“And since then, as employers sought greater flexibility, we’ve seen an increase in temporary work, contract work, direct hire temps, temporary agencies,” he says. “And even non-temporary work, regular work, has become more insecure and more instable.”
Work, when the employer needs you, but only then
Companies want workers “just-in-time.” They want people to work when they need them, and only then.
I spotted an ad for a part-time job at Lowe’s that “requires morning, afternoon and evening availability any day of the week.”
It’s happening across the economy. Just in reporting this story, I talked to a phlebotomist who can’t afford to live on her own, a zoo employee whose hours are too low to qualify for health insurance, a shoe salesman who has to upsell customers to earn more hours. Some of my colleagues are on contracts.
“Labor avoids being a fixed cost and can be shifted around depending on the employer needs,” Kalleberg says. But these tenuous jobs rarely meet employees’ needs.
“It creates a lot of uncertainty and insecurity; it may lead to a situation where they don’t have health insurance, because they don’t have enough hours. So it creates a very unstable and uncertain existence.”
In the classroom now, Vanessa rubs a nub of charcoal across paper… Later, as one class finishes and another group of students shuffles in, she grabs her cooler and ducks outside.
“What time did I have lunch?” she asks. “About 1 p.m., so it’ s about 6, I’m getting a little low energy, so I’ve got to gear up.”
While she eats chunks of sweet potato, she tells me a student has just emailed to drop the class.
Every semester, kids stop showing up when their work schedules change. Vanessa encourages them to talk to the boss. But a lot of times, they are too afraid. Or the boss just says no. We need you when we need you.
“Jobs in Riverside are hard to find, so they opt for, sometimes just dropping all of their classes.”
Students drop out to work at the grocery store… or coffee shop. The kinds of job the economy is creating these days…
“And some of my students I found out are supporting their families, with their Starbucks job, so they need to keep working, that’s the priority. It’s hard to talk a student into staying when they say that.”
Goodbye degree. Goodbye earning potential that comes with it.
Vanessa heads back in… another two-and-a-half hours of class to go.
Can we afford the consumer economy? Marketplace explores how we consume, what we get from it, what it costs and whether we can keep it up.
Explore the whole series and play the game.
A precarious balance
As the last students pack up, Vanessa shoves her supplies into three narrow drawers. Adjuncts don’t get offices.
“It’s almost 9:30, so we’ve been here since 2:40, so now headed home.” It’s back in the car for the hour-and-a-half drive.
Vanessa has lined up two jobs for this summer. Teaching an art class in Riverside, and working with kids for the city of Santa Monica. She’ll be working seven days a week.
“It’s going to be exhausting,” she says. “But I don’t know what’s happening in the fall, I’m still looking for another college for the fall, so I have to say yes to everything that comes my way.”
A lot of people with part-time jobs live much more precariously than Vanessa. But what they all have in common, is the inability make plans for the future, to build a safety net, to invest.
Vanessa is still hopeful that she’ll land that full-time job — doing what she loves — teaching. That she’ll get that career, maybe buy a house and have a family.
“I really like people, I really like taking care of people. I think I would have been a really great mom. And I think I’ll be a really great stepm-om one day.”
There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.
Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.