Recovery and Underemployment


If you had a chance to wade through my boo-hoo chronicles on jobs, you know that I haven’t had the best luck with my career.  Though we’re technically out of the Great Recession, it’s clear that many people are still struggling.  Many are still out of work, but many (far too many) are underemployed.  I’m one of them, and I know a few people in the same boat.  It’s a difficult situation to be in because while many underemployed people have a lot to offer employers, many employers have reconfigured the structure of the workplace to run their companies very lean in terms of full-time hires.  One of the jobs I have has a team of full-timers, but they also have a group of “just in time” employees who are part-time and work on a fill-in basis.   Now, all this works well as long as the labor market remains unchanged.  The minute there’s a surge in hiring among many sectors, you’ll see a churn (i.e., people quitting for other opportunities), an increase in wages, and employers having more difficulty filling positions.  But it’s not clear that we’ll see that kind of virtuous cycle of growth.  There’s too much that can be outsourced, too much technology that can automate tasks that humans used to do, and too much downward pressures to keep wages low because other countries pay their employees who do similar jobs a pittance compared to what workers in the U.S. need to not only survive, but be upwardly mobile.  In short, capitalists have little incentive (or pressure) to change those factors in favor of workers in the current economy.

So what does that mean for the underemployed?  Probably more of the same old, same old. I hope I’m completely wrong about this, but it seems even though the economy has gotten better in the last six years, the kind of jobs available are mostly lower paying gigs.  Nothing I’ve written here is new.  But if there’s one area of the employment game that has to change it’s this one term HR departments and recruiters use to screen applicants. That term is “overqualified.”

Think about that for a moment.  You have underemployment on the one hand and overqualified on the other.  The underemployment rate has inched down from around 20 percent to about 15.8 percent — according to this rolling survey Gallup has been doing. So, how does Gallup define underemployment?  Like this:

“Underemployed” respondents are employed part time, but want to work full time, or they are unemployed. “Unemployed” respondents are those within the underemployed group who are not employed, even for one hour a week, but are available and looking for work.

It’s kind of a weird definition. “Underemployed” also includes unemployed people? How can they measure the unemployment rate as a single measurement and then use the unemployment rate and couple it with people working part-time but looking for full-time work? Huh? What?

One of the problems is that once you’re downwardly mobile, there’s a stigma associated with it. You say you got laid off because of the Great Recession? Bummer. But you’re still marked with a scarlet letter in the eyes of employers. The economy gets wrecked by forces beyond your control, and you get stigmatized because your name was on a list of people to lay off. Hardly fair, and completely narrow-minded, but it’s hard to change that aspect of human nature. People get stuck on things like status and stigma, and when those prejudices filter to HR departments, hiring managers, or is written into the code of those black hole online applications, it all seems hopeless for those looking for work.

So what do you do? How do you break through the barriers and find a job that fits your talents? Google career advice, and you’ll get a ton of answers that often contradict each other. The one person that I think makes a good case for ditching online applications and going directly to the hiring manager is Liz Ryan. She is a career adviser, but she’s one who says that you need a resume that tells a story about you, what you can offer a company, and what job you’re passionate about. You write something called a “Pain Letter” (as in a boss has a pain in the neck problem and is looking for some relief) about what you can bring to their company (which means you have to research a firm where you want to work). You print (yes, PRINT) the letter on paper, put it in an envelope, affix a stamp, write the address of the company on it, and let the U.S. Postal Service deliver it. What you’re doing is going around the silly barriers to get the attention of the hiring manager. Like I said, it might not work, but you can at least be reasonably sure that your letter and resume will be seen by a human — and not sucked up in the vortex of the “apply online” black hole. I’m trying this method because these the same old, same old ain’t working.


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