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Underemployed: For some US workers, now any job will do

As US unemployment has climbed, so, too, has the number of workers who are 'underemployed,' or working in positions that do not fully utilize their education or skill sets.

By Staff writer / December 23, 2009

Getting by: Bill Smith, at home in Wappinger's Falls, N.Y., lost his job as an HR director three years ago. After a series of short-term stints and long searches, he now has steady part-time work in social services.

Ann Hermes/Special to The Christian Science Monitor


Coleen Klinger has experience working overseas and a degree in international studies. She is watering plants at a local Lowe’s to make a living.

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Steve Masten, single father of three, owned a magazine consulting firm for 25 years before taking a job at a gas station in Missouri.

Bill Smith of New York, who has a daughter in college, a son in high school, and a master’s in education and guidance counseling, has had to work packing frozen turkeys.

These are just some examples of the many experienced workers who, after spending months or even years unemployed or underemployed, have decided that any job is better than no job at all.

“Some days I feel embarrassed to think that this is the best that I can do,” says Ms. Klinger of Zanesville, Ohio. “Then I talk with people like my brother who have not worked in over a year. I remind myself that I am doing something.”

More people are underemployed in America than at any time since the government starting keeping the statistic in 1990. By the definition of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), they are America’s “underutilized” – those working part time but who want to work full time, those who want to work but have been discouraged by their lack of success at finding a job, and those who are so discouraged that they have stopped looking for work at all even though they want to work.

They are three degrees of frustration – a prism for the desperation of the labor force – and 9.3 million Americans currently qualify. The current record levels of underemployment are a product of the growing long-term unemployment rate. While the number of short-term unemployed is declining, the number of those out of work for six months or longer increased to 5.9 million in November – up from 4.4 million in June, says BLS.

An ‘irretrievable loss’

It is a fundamental challenge to the US economy. Studies show that spells of long-term unemployment can lead to permanent reduced earnings. Once long-term unemployment erodes skills and marketability, workers are more likely to drop out of the workforce, weakening the entire labor market.

In an October appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said long-term unemployment was his greatest jobs-related concern because it represented a potential “irretrievable loss.”

The natural consequence of long-term unemployment is underemployment. To keep their résumés active – not to mention put food on the table – 63 percent of workers who were laid off during the past year said they have applied for positions that were below the job level they had held previously, according to a survey by Career Builder.

For employers, “it’s a buyer’s market,” says Todd Steen, an economist at Hope College in Holland, Mich.