A part-time career alters life's expectations

Vanessa Madrid, 43, makes do with part-time teaching. She demonstrates charcoal technique in an art class at Riverside City College in Riverside, CA.

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."

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
Log in to post14 Comments


As sad as it may be but when the professor cannot make ends meet, how does she explain the cost for college to someone whose best hope is that they will still have a job at Starbucks after they graduate?

I graduated in 1999 with a BA in elementary education and a BA in history. I wound up working as a firefighter after teaching for a year. I was a firefighter for 11 years before I got sick. Before I fell ill, I earned a MS in Special Education. I'd been told that was the only way I'd get back into education because they were even paying hiring bonuses for those jobs. Now I'm 36, working at a part-time job (which I do love dont get me wrong) and I'm looking for another job to make ends meet. My hubby is working full time, and we are struggling to just pay rent. I believed that I'd find a good job once I got my masters, then the economy soured, and it hasnt been any better. The news says things are better, but when you have a college degree no one wants to hire you because you are "over educated" or you dont have experience. I never in my wildest dreams imagined we'd be making so little. Before I got sick I worked two jobs and made more than 40,000.00 a year. Now my hubby and I make half that combined. There is no end in sight.

It has certainly been well documented that college costs significantly more now than ever before. If even colleges are cutting costs by hiring part-time instructors, what is that all that money is being spent on? Of course, this is the story of an art teacher at Riverside City College, which I assume is a small and/or community college. How typical this scenario this is of other colleges and instructors/professors of other subjects is not discussed, and is pretty crucial.

kudos to Vanessa Madrid and the commenter below who are the most responsible of parents (parenthood starts before procreation), who acknowledge the foolishness of making a child in a situation which financially cannot afford it responsibly, who acknowledge that having/creating a family is the most sacrificing to responsibilities of all undertakings

did you hear what Ms Madrid said at the end of the interview: "i think i'll be a really great step mom some day". her hope has gone from biological parenthood (which is only about 1% anyway of parenthood) to non-biological parenthood (99% of parenthood). i would venture to guess that comment is due to that biological clock which affects the body but not the spirit

Anonyms - Jun 12, 2013:
"And actually, I decided in my late 20s looking at even then what was before me that as difficult to digest as it would be, I would never be able to afford supporting a child. The feeling of that loss is beyond words and only really understandable by women since it is not an issue for men at all."

hmm, i think it was a man who penned: "There are three things that are never satisfied, yea, four things say not, It is enough: The grave; and the barren womb; the earth that is not filled with water; and the fire that saith not, It is enough." proverbs 30: 15, 16

great article, Adriene Hill and marketplace

This story completely ignored the 800 pound gorilla in the room called Obamacare. Companies will no longer hire full-timers when they have to be responsible for things like maternity leave for both mother and father, contraceptives, child care and the like. Return to the days of simply good pay for good jobs and the unemployment rate will drop to nothing.

So-called Obamacare will worsen the situation, but it didn't cause it. That dubious honor goes to for-profit colleges. The story is describing a trend that's about a decade old.

"Someone is having trouble getting a job with an art degree"

Color me shocked. Gee I'd love to get paid teaching art too, who wouldn't.

It seems to me, that if we are supposedly a consumer-driven economy, we are heading for an economic cliff. How does one procure the income to consume lots of needless goods when one cannot even supply one's own basic needs for food, shelter, transportation, etc.? My field is ecology and environmental science, which is obviously not one of those careers in high demand. But it is one that has put me into a position to question a lot of what we consider normal and necessary.
First, I managed to teach 12 years as an adjunct while my husband brought in the income that made a comfortable life possible. Now I am teaching full time and overseeing adjuncts. It never ceases to amaze me how often I see well qualified, very intelligent and very talented instructors trying to juggle a part time career teaching with other part time work. This was made one step harder at our institution by the Affordable Health Care Act. Now, our part time employees' hours are capped and they cannot work in two departments, say teaching and tutoring. (Would the full time instructors like to take up the slack and help the tutoring center? as well as help advising? help retention efforts? etc., and maintain expertise in teaching technology and, oh yes, stay current in your field?) No wonder I have heard these poor people referred to as "disposable professors."
Second, the idea of an economy based on consumption. And for me this has two parts - the first is one your series illustrates. That is, people who have to budget every dime do not have disposable income to spend on things they do not immediately need. This means less consumption of goods and services, and eventually less production of goods and services. And isn't our economy based on a cycle of people working to get money to pay for goods and services, and goods and services being produced for people to spend their income on, and people work to . . . Well, you get the idea. Now I hear more and more about people banding together in community situations where time and talent is shared as a community resource without money changing hands. Good for them! Would this mean that our economy is beginning to be reshaped?
And that leads me to the next piece that encourages the environmental part of me. An economy that is built on using the world's resources faster than they can be regrown or recycled is eventually doomed. That happens with any population of organisms, and humans are only exempt because we can think and react quickly to dwindling supplies of resources - so far.
Perhaps this "bad" economic news is for the best. Maybe we will stop, or at least slow down, to consider where our relationship to the planet that supports us can go. I personally don't think the human race is doomed by our CO2 emissions, toxins in the air, water and soil, using renewable resources faster than they can be replenished, etc. I believe that if we have the foresight and will, we can live sustainably on our good earth.

I have never before heard a story that so accurately echoed mine. Ironically, just after learning that my last 10 years of school (earning a Masters AND clearing all but the teaching hours for my state of California credential that would enable me to teach art to adults) was apparently no longer going to be considered valid by the state after August. A credential that cost me (and actually the state) over $10k for a job which pays less than $1000/month and offers no benefits (such as what this woman is working) has now gone in the trash. After 500 (yes, five hundred) resumes and letters and calls to try and secure my teaching hours to clear that credential, I was unable to get even one hour of teaching at any of the same facilities this gal has been fortunate enough to teach at ...and I'm older than she is and have been in the art field longer (since the 70s), hold an exhibit history, a 4.0 GPA, excellent recommendations, and can teach about charcoal and drawing as well as how to translate a PDF file into a Photoshop file. I was told I could start over and re-apply all new for a new credential and retake (yes, you heard that right) ALL of my classes again and just use my old homework. Then I was told even this wouldn't help me since the time elapsed since I last worked in the industry was too long ago to continue to qualify me and that my years recently completing my Masters did not count (and you wonder why our education system for adults as well as children is so f'd up...)

This woman is extremely fortunate to have what she has. For folks like me, we've been altogether shut out entirely for even an adjunct position or hour or 2 here or there. And actually, I decided in my late 20s looking at even then what was before me that as difficult to digest as it would be, I would never be able to afford supporting a child. The feeling of that loss is beyond words and only really understandable by women since it is not an issue for men at all. For every billionaire techie in California, umpteen stars (some of them talented and some simply air head models and reality TV stars), self-centered MBA business tycoon or real estate robot, there are at least probably 50 or so of us regular people, well educated, talented, hard working, who can barely pay for a car repair.

Undoutedly, there will be commenters here who will trash this woman and blame her for her lack of adequate means of support. But of greater concern are the many more who just don't give a D.

Lastly, by the way, a single payer system in California (a bill we passed twice and was vetoed twice by the Republican governor at that time and now was blocked in getting to governor Brown's desk) would fix a lot of this depletion of human capital at least here in California.

Millions of workers of all ages are stuck with part time jobs with no benefits. Why is congress trying to tell us that adding millions more to our labor force with both skilled and unskilled immigrant workers, is good for us? It's not and it never will be. Only the wealthy benefit from immigration.


With Generous Support From...