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Dayton, Ohio — The Great Recession forced thousands to settle for part-time work, culling two or three jobs together just to put food on the table.

But as the nation inches closer to the benchmark unemployment rate at which virtually everyone who wants a job has one, many people are still working part time because they prefer to work part time.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are now about 20 million Americans who work part time by choice.

The Government Accountability Office estimated earlier this year that about 40 percent of U.S. workers are part-timers, self-employed, temps or freelancers, up from about 31 percent in 2006.

Meanwhile, the number of Americans who for financial reasons work less than 35 hours a week, the government’s definition of part time, has declined dramatically.

The statistics belie the assumption that most people work part time because they can’t find a full-time gig.

“I came into the office this morning at 11 o’clock,” said Jayson Nigro, self-described “chief fun officer” at LiftOff Entertainment, a mobile disk jockey service he started in 2010 after graduating from the University of Dayton with a master’s degree in business administration. “I’m a pretty outgoing people person, and the idea of working full time at one job ... I don’t know if I could ever sit at a 9-to-5 job.”

Before he went back to graduate school at the University of Dayton, Nigro said he worked in promotions for a couple of years for a national marketing company.

“I worked full time in the corporate world for awhile, but I got tired of traveling,” Nigro said. “I was out on the road for 210 days in 2009, so I decided to go back to school to continue my education, get an MBA and start a business.

“I had some cash in the bank from my previous job, and I worked a few part-time jobs that allowed me to start LiftOff,” he said. “I gave myself two years to succeed. I’ve been in business five years now, and I can’t imagine doing anything else, mostly because I truly love the flexibility to run a business and pursue other interests.”

The desire for a flexible schedule is common denominator among many part-time workers who choose an abbreviated schedule to balance work and family demands, participate in special hobbies or interests or devote time to volunteer activity in the community.

AJ Ferguson, who earlier this year took over as director of the economic development nonprofit UpDayton, says the money and job security that might have come with a lucrative corporate gig wouldn’t compensate for the freedom he enjoys in his current position.

“I don’t want to miss a day with the family at the holidays because I used my last vacation day to go camping with friends,” Ferguson said. “More money can’t buy back missed time with friends and family.”

Ferguson is young, well-educated and well-groomed for corporate America. But like many of his contemporaries, he thinks a traditional, full-time office job would not only compromise his work-life satisfaction but also limit his productivity.

“There are a whole lot of things that are appealing about traditional 9-to-5 jobs like big-company benefits, stability, salary levels and more,” Ferguson said. “At the end of the day, though, I’ve opted for what opportunities sound highly creative, highly flexible, highly engaging, highly challenging, highly meaningful and viable financially. So far, traditional 9-to-5 employers have struggled to convince me they can offer all that.”

Ferguson said he works about 30 hours a week fulfilling UpDayton’s mission to attract and retain young talent in the local area, but the job also allows him to “play in some other sandboxes,” including working part time as the director of community initiatives for The Collaboratory, which offers space and a support system for people to collaborate in downtown Dayton.

He said he can afford to work less than full time at one job because his financial obligations are limited: “It of course helps that I’m 26, am unmarried, have no children and don’t have any student loans to pay off.”

Therein lies the rub for many of the 6.5 million Americans who still work part time because their hours have been cut or they are unable to find a full-time job.

“I wish I could work part time just because I wanted to. But that’s not my reality. Every day is a struggle for me to make ends meet,” said Markus Stollings-Byrd, who has been seeking a full-time job for the past several years.

The 34-year-old Dayton resident, who works mainly part-time construction jobs, hoped earning certification as an electrical technician from Kaplan College in Dayton would help him find full-time work. After he graduated in 2009, he soon realized his certification wasn’t enough.

“It’s been hard for me to find a job because everyone wants you to have years of experience; nobody wants to hire you on at the entry level,” Stollings-Byrd said. “That’s been my struggle with finding a full-time job as an electrician.”

The father of five said he has a temporary job lined up on a major construction project in the state’s largest city, Columbus, where he hopes his full-time employment prospects might be brighter. In the meantime, he’s been forced to make some drastic lifestyle changes.

“I moved back with my mom for awhile while I caught up on some bills,” Stollings-Byrd said. “I’ve got $20,000 in student loans that I’m trying to pay off. I can’t get financial aid to enroll in an apprenticeship program or pursue something else until I pay those loans off. I’ve only paid down about $3,000 so far. I need a real job.”

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