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Unemployment’s ugly sibling is underemployment, and it can have long-term effects

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | Alaska Workplace
  • Updated: September 21
  • Published September 21

Perhaps you’re part time but need a full-time work. Or you had to accept a new job at a low wage. Here’s how to navigate the realities of underemployment. (Getty Images)

You’re lucky to have a job, except you don’t feel lucky. Perhaps you work part time but need full-time work. You may have lost your job and found a new one, but now work for a low wage that barely pays your monthly expenses. Possibly you leap from one short-term temporary job to another, as if you’re navigating slippery river rocks toward a riverbank that never gets closer.

You may have grabbed an entry-level job for which you’re overqualified thinking it would be temporary, but now find it hard to drag yourself to work. Perhaps you’re a parent who wants full-time work but can’t accept more hours because you can’t afford or find childcare. Possibly you just graduated and can’t land a job that pays enough to pay down schooling debts.

Welcome to underemployment, unemployment’s ugly sibling.

Coronavirus was and is an employment game-changer. With unemployment insurance claims now soaring past 3 million and the pandemic’s end date not in sight, experts predict large numbers of employees will find themselves underemployed for years, particularly if they worked in a job sectors impacted by reduced demand.

If you find yourself underemployed, here’s what you can expect and what to do about it.

You face months of income below your “distress threshold” and probably won’t regain your former financial footing for a year or more. Cut every expense you can and explore available sources of aid; by acknowledging the situation and taking control, you help settle your panic.

If your career formed a large part of your identity or sense of worth, you may travel an emotional trajectory that starts with shock and denial and moves into feelings of depression, anxiety and anger. You might feel betrayed by an employer who apparently no longer considers you an essential member of their team. Without the social support your work family gave, you may feel personally untethered. If you now lack a workday structure, you might find it hard to remain focused and instead adopt a few bad habits.

As you may fear, underemployment can lead to unemployment, as you won’t be able to update your resume with positions of increasing responsibility or advanced skills employees receive from on-the-job training.

Moving forward — you’ve learned life can change on a dime, and that’s the bad news and the good. Decide you will survive and be a viable candidate for the job you want when things turn around again, because they will. Decide what you can and cannot control and put fixes in place where you can.

Don’t hide your underemployment, because doing so cuts yourself off from job leads and the support your friends and others can give. Let your professional network and peers know you’re looking for your next job and ask that they keep an eye out for you. You may land a job before it’s posted.

Make sure your profile and resume clearly capture your strengths and show what you offer an employer. Actively cruise and LinkedIn and apply for interesting jobs. Consider whether you need to pivot to a different type of position. Widen your focus to employers now hiring, such as those in supply chain management, IT services and food and product distribution. Learn what skills they seek in applicants. Learn what skills they seek in applicants and then acquire those skills by taking advantage of the free online courses offered by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and EdX (which features courses from MIT and Harvard).

You may worry you’ll never regain your career footing. You can and will.

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