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Dave Rowlison: 'Even when I was doing consulting work for three different companies simultaneously, I was definitely underemployed. None of it really used all of my skills.'

Glenn Lowson/Copyright: Glenn Lowson

In the year since he got a "golden handshake," Dave Rowlison has held several jobs. But none has required more than 10 hours of his time in any given week.

Mr. Rowlison, 46, had 15 years of experience with telecom companies, most recently as business development manager for Communications Test Design Inc. in Toronto, which he left in a downsizing last winter.

Since then, he's worked on only short-term contracts, juggling as many as three at a time, lasting from just a couple of weeks to three months apiece.

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Still, they haven't added up to a full-time work week and he has been pulling in less than half of the six-figure income he enjoyed in his last full-time job. In fact, he even worked pro bono for one cash-strapped firm.

Mr. Rowlison is one of a growing number of workers cut adrift from full-time jobs by the recession who have been forced to cobble together bits and pieces of part-time work, often earning less, enjoying less security and doing work that is below their skill level.

Are you underemployed? Share your story in our comments area, or e-mail the team.

As much as unemployment, underemployment has also become a feature of this recession.

"Even when I was doing consulting work for three different companies simultaneously, I was definitely underemployed. None of it really used all of my skills," Mr. Rowlison says.

A substantial number of jobs created in Canada in recent months have been part-time. In November, for instance, part-time employment increased by 40,000, while full-time jobs rose by 38,600.

The trend is likely to continue, based on a recent survey by job site As companies rebuild their work forces, 48 per cent of employers expect to hire part-timers this year, according to the poll of 255 Canadian hiring managers and human resource professionals in private-sector companies. Of them, 73 per cent expect to hire the same number as last year, 18 per cent expect to hire more and just 9 per cent plan to hire fewer, the survey found.

But significantly, 29 per cent of employers also said they plan to increase their permanent employee roster when they get the chance - a sharp increase from the 18 per cent of employers who said that last January.

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Even when I was doing consulting work for three different companies simultaneously, I was definitely underemployed. None of it really used all of my skills.

Mr. Rowlison hopes to be among them, and in a new field, to boot.

Deciding that opportunities in his former industry are shrinking, he is turning to alternative energy to scope out a new career. Among his contracts have been projects doing business plans for startup solar- and wind-power companies. He's counting on these roles to help him gain new experience and a foot in the door to a permanent position.

The experts say that's a better strategy than ever, because the chances of a non-permanent role turning into a permanent one are improving rapidly. So even if work doesn't offer the challenge, pay or security of a full-time role, it's wise to take it for the experience it offers, pros say.

"Think of a short-term contract job right now as an audition," advises John Challenger, chief executive officer of job transition and recruiting company Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. in Chicago.

"Companies are going to hire on contract, rather than permanent positions, until they see if the recovery is for real. If the economy rebounds as predicted, you may find the organization has become used to your presence, and you can find yourself gracefully moving into a full-time role," Mr. Challenger says.

In fact, there are likely to be even more contract roles available in the coming months as employers gear up for an economic pickup, says Warren Lundy, a partner with Toronto-based executive coaching and recruiting firm Feldman Daxon Partners Inc.

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"At the moment, many have yet to decide where the best opportunities are for expansion, so they will hire on short-term contract until their needs become clearer," he says.

As the economy rebounds, up to half of part-time or temp assignments are likely to turn into full-time roles, he predicts. "So your chances are good. Being on the inside when a permanent job is posted makes you a logical candidate, because it is much easier to hire someone they know and have seen in action than someone they don't know."

It's also a chance to audition employers, says career coach Elizabeth Lengyel, president of PeopleCoach Inc. in Guelph, Ont.

"There are advantages to being in a position with a set time limit, because it gives you the opportunity to try on a new role and scope out the potential employer from the inside, and consider whether it is a good career move for you."

Mr. Rowlison is on the road to turning his part-time positions into full-time work. He recently landed a consulting contract with an Ontario utility company looking to develop a renewable energy division.

At 40 hours a week, it's the equivalent of a full-time job, with a salary nearing what he made in his previous career. Just as important, it uses all his skills and opens advancement opportunities in a new and growing industry, he says.

Turning part-time into full-time

Here are tips from experts Elizabeth Lengyel and Warren Lundy for making the most of a part-time gig:

Act like a regular

  • Treat the short-term assignment as a prolonged job tryout and arrive on time, put in a full day and dependably carry out assignments.

Keep an ear to ground

  • A short-term job gets you inside, where you can see opportunities in other parts of the organization, even if the role you are in won't become full time.

Learn their needs

  • Scope out the organization's problems and hiccups and communicate to managers how your skills and insights can help solve them.

Hang with the keeners

  • Develop ties with high performers and others who may have clout with those in the hiring seat. They may help drop the word that you're a keeper.

Be willing and adaptable

  • Take on work with a smile. Volunteering for assignments and taking on hours or tasks others may be avoiding will make you seem more valuable.

Be an innovator

  • Come up with a way to do your job or another role in the organization more effectively or develop a new niche for yourself and discuss it with the boss.

Time your pitch

  • Don't ask immediately about whether a part-time role can become permanent. Let them warm to you and plan a presentation of why your skills are essential. The best time is about three months into the role or before your contract is due for renewal.

Negotiate your terms

  • Once managers indicate they see your long-term potential, you have bargaining power to ask for more pay and perks than you got as a temporary employee.

Don't limit options

  • A short-term role with major time commitments can get in the way of a search for a permanent role. Consider limiting part-time work to no more than three days a week to continue networking and scheduling job interviews. If you must work a full week, ask for some flexibility in hours.

Keep options open

  • There are no guarantees until you get offered a permanent position, so keep networking and looking at other potential opportunities.

Are you underemployed? Share your story in our comments area, or e-mail the team.

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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More

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