Underemployment is a consideration for many jobseekers. Once unemployment benefits have been exhausted and resources are close to being depleted, underemployment may become an urgent necessity.

Making the decision…
The decision—to pursue underemployment—may have a deep emotional toll on the jobseeker and his or her family. It can reinforce thoughts of failure. It can steal every bit of self-worth that the jobseeker thought that he or she had to offer. The work that the jobseeker accepts can also steal their dignity in their own mind. It can be devastating. This in turn takes a toll on relationships.


Under-employment will likely earn far less income than the position held prior to unemployment. Each paycheck may be a reminder of former salaries and push any sense of self-worth further into despair.

“I made more money than this when I was in high school.”
“I’m making half what my daughter makes—at her entry-level position.”
“I used to pay more in taxes than my entire pay check is now.”

The responsibilities may seem menial. Generally speaking, with less responsibility, jobseekers may feel less respected.

“I used to manage more people than work in this building.”
“I was in charge of budgets in the millions…”

* * *

A True Story:
Stan (not his real name) had worked his way up through the ranks of a small manufacturing company. When he was in his late 20s, he went to the interview and was asked to complete some tasks. They told him his manual dexterity was good and he started as a wire threader. He did well.

As the company grew Stan’s responsibilities expanded. He began teaching new employees. As he looked around the shop, he realized there was considerable waste and figured out how to reduce the waste and increase the bottom line. He saw inventory that sat around collecting dust and started tracking orders as they came in.

It didn’t take long before Stan became a team leader and as he watched his team, he created a safety manual and made sure his team took the guidelines seriously. As new employees were hired, Stan was invited into the hiring process and found he had a knack for identifying the right employee.

Once they were hired, Stan became the bridge between the employees and the management. Employee engagement was high and attrition was low. He worked out deals with suppliers and constructed quality manuals and followed up to ensure customers were happy. The company grew with Stan leading the operations.

Over the years, Stan’s contribution to the company continued to be rewarded and after 22 years, he became the General Manager.

A few years later the company leadership changed. Consultants were brought in who deemed it critical that the company purchase and implement top-cost technology. Stan was part of the change and he was laid off.

Hiring in manufacturing was down, especially executives, as companies worked hard to reduce costs. Eventually Stan’s unemployment ran out. He was getting interviews but a viable job offer had not materialized. He decided he had to go back to work – anything would do.

Soon Stan was loading boxes for a national carrier. He was required to repeatedly jump down a three-foot drop, load 400 boxes per hour for four hours per day. He looked at the staff: there was no enthusiasm, just grueling work. He saw ways to maximize the staff capacity. The team needed encouragement and Stan started encouraging others on the job.

Stan began talking to his manager about ways to increase staff efficiency. He gathered the team together for two-minutes before the shift began to encourage people on their work.

Stan was being Stan. He was still a General Manager—even though his current position designated him as a “package handler”. Some of the managers resented his interference. Clearly he could do their jobs better than they could. He made them look bad to their teams. When Stan spoke to people higher in the company, he made the managers look bad to their bosses.

Stan tried to contribute as if he were in his former role. He knew he had more to offer and wanted to make the situation better. Stan yearned to bring value and contribute. It was depressing.

* * *

The Challenge of Underemployment:
The fact that you may have to settle for a job does not align with your past successes can become frustrating and make you feel stuck.


Some people begin to doubt their value and even believe that they in fact belong in this position and their prior successes were just a fluke or a stroke of luck.

The longer a jobseeker is underemployed the longer s/he will have to contend with these issues.

Four reasons to accept underemployment:
There are some excellent reasons to get a job. Not just any job at all, but the best you can find. Here are some specific advantages that an underemployment situation can bring to you—especially if your situation puts you in the “long-term unemployed” category.

  1. Being “work ready” is a concern for employers when a person has been unemployed for a long time. It takes a certain rigor to manage a job and a household. Having a job, even if it’s considered “underemployment” shows work readiness.
  2. Going to work usually includes some kind of interaction with people. Employers know that these skills can get rusty during a long bout of unemployment.
  3. The obvious advantage, especially if unemployment benefits have ended, is the financial gain, even if it seems meager.
  4. Going to work, doing a good job is a characteristic of dignity and integrity.

Two goals for the underemployed:

  1. Continue to look for a job that better suits your interests and talents.
    • Goal number one is important to maintain your focus on your job search and not become complacent in your current position. Set a goal to find and apply for at least one to three positions every week.
  2. Manage your negative feelings while you continue to be an “under employee.”
    • Maintaining the job search will help maintain a healthy attitude because you are making efforts towards your goal.
    • Underemployment is uncomfortable and can motivate you to make a change.
    • Finally, be compassionate to yourself. Beating yourself up for being in the position you are in will not accomplish your goal to move forward. In fact it will keep you from moving forward because it will deplete your energy.

    How to talk about your underemployment:

    • To friends and family:

      “Yes, I’ve taken a job at Quickie-Mart. It may not sound like much, but it is honorable work. Every time I go in, I watch the people around me and try to give them a pleasant experience, or even give them reason to smile. I work diligently at the job and help wherever I can.

      “I want to show my friends and family that integrity on the job is important—even in jobs that seem to carry less responsibility than I had. Frankly, my take home check is less than I used to pay in taxes. But that’s not the point. I get up every day and I go to work and do a good job. That’s what I focus on.”

    • During an interview:

      Interviewer: “I see you are working at Quickie-Mart?”

      “Yes I am. Thank you for asking about that. First, it’s important to me to get up and go to work. It’s also important to do every part of the job as well as possible.

      “This work may not seem like much, but it gives me the opportunity to keep my people skills sharp. I deal with unhappy, challenging personalities every day. My job is to be a liaison between the store and this individual and I want to earn their loyalty. I also want to show my family how to manage difficult challenges and get through with their dignity and integrity intact.”

    One uncontested reality for the jobseeker:
    If you don’t stop learning and you don’t stop trying—you will get a job. I’ve watched this through eight of the most challenging economic years in the history of the United States and it has not failed even once.

    Never Give Up Indicates Motivating Motivate And Determination

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4 thoughts on “Under-employment: Is it permanent?

  1. Marcia has presented some very important points about the psychological impact
    long term unemployment has on a person and those around the and the results of
    what it’s like to resign one’s self to accept under employment as represented in the
    Stan story. The additional dilemma he was faced with of being resented by those
    he worked with in the underemployment position. Yet does Stan have another twenty
    years to give and out survive those fellow employees in the new position? I doubt it,
    so where can we go from here?

    The key could be consulting as was expressed in Marcia’s blog. Stan as well as
    anyone in his shoes would probably make a pretty good high paid consultant for
    another company who would need someone with the knowledge and expertise to
    help out on a short term basis. What would It take to make such an Idea doable?

    1. Dean, thanks for our comment. I believe it is doable. One book to consider that has a practical, workable approach is “Real Skills, Real Income: A Proven Marketing System to Land Well-Paid Freelance and Consulting Work in 30 Days or Less by Diana Schneidman. Here’s the link: A Proven Marketing System to Land Well-Paid Freelance and Consulting Work in 30 Days or Less.

  2. The article sounds exactly like my life at this point. My unemployment ran out and I was thrown onto Welfare. Being on cash assistance, I was put into a program to help me find work. It is called the Earn Center. After four weeks of not obtaining a position, I had to do community service.

    I am not underemployed. I tried many times to obtain a position with companies that were hiring for lower positions that my degrees would be screaming for more money. Unfortunately, those companies told me I was overqualified. Now I am volunteering for Public Access Tv. Its really not bad. I have made some new friends and contacts. My mission is to obtain a job in social media marketing.

    1. Stephen,
      Thank you for reading, for commenting, and for sharing your story. The hardest part is keeping a positive attitude and it sounds like you’ve been doing that. The whole process can be humiliating. Unfortunately, unemployment benefits don’t take the industry into consideration. You have been living through a flat market as social media and Big Data has turned the marketing and advertising industry upside down.

      Back in 2008, the average time to employment was 8 months and 3 weeks. The financial sector went down—everyone from Business Analysts to CFOs, the industry shrunk for over 18 months. So the people who were laid off early had to wait 18 months before their “8 months and 3 weeks” to find a job even started. I’ve noticed lately that the marketing industry is picking up and truly hope that you stay with it and that your career is restored.

      Again, thanks for commenting.

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