Since the recession hit in late 2008, the concept of underemployment, as the cousin of unemployment, has seen greater discussion in the press. As a condition, underemployment of the financial kind can be a lifeline or nearly as cash limiting as being unemployed. Consider the employment trend where many people with advanced education have to work far outside their qualifications. This phenomenon is chronicled in an October 22, 2013 article on the Independent news website.
Reports such as those may cast a different light on the guarantee of higher education in terms of employment. Business Insider has an article published on August 22, 2013 that shows, among other things, that college graduates could face an uphill challenge in the coming years. As far as good news, there are tips on LinkedIn about how to avoid underemployment.
As several media sources have reported, underemployment has traditionally seen less discussion than unemployment. Part of this may have to do with the way unemployment is gauged. Unemployment reporting is partly figured based on the number of unemployment insurance filings. Lower unemployment filings may suggest improved employment, but may be misleading as an indicator. In terms of more accurate reporting, it is good that this is not the only way to determine unemployment rate.
In reality, many people may simply decide to stop filing for unemployment. One reason is they may be ineligible to receive the benefit. Those that get it may reach the end of their unemployment benefit. Taken together, these conditions become one of several entry vectors into homelessness if sufficient employment or Welfare fails to materialize early enough in the cycle. At best, these unemployment benefits may keep a person afloat long enough, economically, to obtain durable and financially beneficial employment. Otherwise, they may only delay the inevitable.
Underemployment is seeing increased visibility. Just this past July, CNBC reported on the deceptive nature of underemployment. The July 8, 2013 article, Why Underemployment May Be Worse Than It Looks, CNBC examines the possibility of underemployment being greater in reality than is normally perceived. Underemployment is real and can be nearly as inhibiting as unemployment.
My Own Path to Underemployment
Between 2001 and 2008, I was a corporate technology analyst with a great career. The positions I held were steady, reliable, long-term, and economically fruitful. During that time, I actively grew my level of contribution to organizations in terms of technology and operational impact. I did everything from writing medium-sized software systems, managing enterprise databases, and coordinating projects. I evolved into higher level roles and saw the stakes and rewards improve at each level. I was quite enterprising in my goals and when I stepped out into another position to expand my long-term career prospects in late 2008, my timing could not have been worse.
The Financial Crisis of 2008 hit but I was largely unaware of it. I fully existed in a Corporate American bubble. Whereas before, I had jobs that lasted years, my new job consisted of two 3-month terms. I had a good 6-month term I understood would last a few years. It ended without notice. The warning signs were there but I was in denial given that my experience so far informed me to the contrary. Fortunately, it was not in the middle of an icy December. Still today, I cannot see a link between the Great Recession and my own employment difficulties.
What I can see is that I had forgotten what it was like to be poor and struggling. Somewhere between the ages of 6 through 10, I figured out what welfare was on visits with my mother and little brother to the Welfare office and on trips to the corner store when I had to pick up groceries with a stack of food stamps in my hand. Wearing clothes and brand names bought at places poor people shopped and facing criticism by peers over choices beyond your control was enlightening. Walking places and taking the Metro bus in adolescence when many others your age are driving cars can mean no access to recreational venues occupied by peers. Observing peers from more prosperous backgrounds seemingly gain access to higher value scholastic and developmental activities and constitute a larger percentage of upper level courses makes you wonder if that will affect you in ways that are unclear today.
All such things and more I had begun to forget when I started working at age 16 and my mother entered the middle class after working two jobs for several years. Some things you easily forget until aspects of those conditions recur. Well, I have had a re-introduction to financial powerlessness and material inadequacy. Such has been my life now for the past 4 years with occasional months of reprieve. Though I have seen my share of personal disappointment in this way, I recognize there are those with travails more severe. I am reminded that financial or employment or general calamity can visit most of us suddenly.
In a matter of 30 days ending in April 2009, I went from living in a gated community with luxurious amenities and a plush apartment just outside Atlanta with granite counter-tops, track lighting, stainless steel appliances, and filtered water extending to the restrooms to packing up everything into the dumpster and migrating to roach motels in Florida. Surviving on instinct, by the time I figured things out in Jacksonville a month later, another job was lost. I was working for a housing mortgage company. Again, I was still in an awareness bubble, slowly dissolving, and had no idea there was a mortgage lending crisis. That is not the entire story for that situation but large contributing factor.
I sauntered around South Carolina, residing in another hotel(s), for a job that didn’t pan out before lodging with relatives for a few months. That was June of 2009. For a few months, I had to take up residence with relatives as I faced no employment prospects or income.
A staffing agency recruiter reconnected with me and brought me out of that situation. He pulled me out of my first lull in work in 2001 and did so again in 2009. As a former Army Ranger he operated on a level of honor, compassion, consistency, and persistence that seemed like a cross between science and art. With his efforts and advocacy, by October of that year, I finally had a job I was unknowingly ill-qualified for that ended suddenly after a few weeks right after I turned down a competing offer to work for the Federal government. The Federal position was to be one of the best positions I could ever hope to hold with one of the most esteemed institutions in the nation. After 4 or more years of applying, it seemed like things were going in the right direction. Suddenly quitting a new job for a more attractive post seemed poor form at the time along with the inadequate financial wherewithal to relocate. Housing, funding and cost of living relative to near-term cash resources proved to be the ultimate boundaries. Reconciling the dilemma proved regrettable in the outcomes that followed. For a few months afterwards, I received a few job offers for Federal contracts. When you are down and out, relocation becomes messy and appears impossible.
Around March 2010, I left the relatives as their mortgage was falling apart and I had nothing to offer to save the situation other than drain resources they needed to survive. I migrated to Memphis, lived in my car, lived in hotels, lived in my car on the back side of gas stations and abandoned areas of the city. Some nights were very long indeed. I scrapped around until I got a new position. Memphis was my last chance.
A new position did develop. I conducted my phone interview among the hustle and bustle of the Wolfchase Mall. It was a great position like those I had a decade ago, but it fell apart after 4 weeks. During the two months that followed, I was burning cash toiling at the FedEx Office submitting resumes desperately working to get back on track. Wisely, or perhaps out of necessity, I maintained lodging in a rundown roach motel by the name of Traveler’s Inn. A rate of $150 a week in a roach motel stretches cash remarkably though you pay for it later with health issues. I was fully aware of all that I had lost materially in the years prior and it was everything I could do to remain focused, resolute, and intense in my efforts to maintain momentum. Recruiter after recruiter, staffing agency, after staffing agency bore little fruit. It was a cycle I first encountered late in 2008 that seemed completely at an end in terms of results in the late spring and early summer of 2010.
A week before I was due to vacate my hotel room, I got a call to interview for a position to run the technology for a small company. The catch was I would be the only IT person and my salary would drop by 60%. The business owner kept my lodging going until the first payroll and that is how I survived the summer of 2010. Months later, I would be the last resident of that hotel as it was shutdown without notice. Without money to go elsewhere right away, I had to remain for a week in the dark without electricity or heat in January 2011. Other hotels followed before finding a reasonable extended stay for the next year and a half.
I did a really great job at that company in the solo, hands-on, IT management position in which I did everything though it was the most intense situation I had encountered in terms of workload. Writing all the software, websites, maintaining, expanding and substantially revising databases, reports, networks, hardware, and attending to local and remote tech support was valuable experience and responsibility. Previously, my jobs were focused one major area and maybe a second minor area. This was a chance to optimize the whole thing without red tape, or departmental barriers and in terms of results, I excelled. I became spoiled in terms of the latitude I had gained. That all lasted just over 2 years and may have gone on longer but the company was bought out by another company. Things happen during a change over.
Across these situations since 2009, income has been inconsistent. An offer letter of employment may say 60K, 80K, 90K annual but actual gross at the end of the year may be 20K or 30K. The space between one job and the next means that sometimes you lose access to a vehicle. Loosing your car means you either have to walk to work for a couple of weeks or months; take the bus if it is available; or take a taxi if you are lucky. Getting groceries, going to church, or running errands may become a weekly endeavor of greatly demanding if not occasionally debilitating tragic proportions (see the part about crashing a bicycle head first at 30 miles/hr on a 3-hr journey to work in which you set out at 5 AM).
You learn some things in a much greater and deeper way during these occasions. You find out more things about yourself. Your limits in many areas, not just occupational, but psychological and spiritual. Your sense of priorities change. When you lose all or most your material things, in my case, 3 or 4 times in 4 years, you learn to look beyond them more than you might have previously. At the very least you hesitate to reinvest in material things wondering if this or that new purchase will soon have end up in the trash months or years later. What you keep when you have to pack up and go teaches you what items have true survival and basic life value and which of those constitute part of the illusion of modern living. You also learn that some jobs you believed yourself ill-equipped for may actually be quite accessible to you. Maybe you were quite good at finance, computers, healthcare, or science but realize that perhaps other careers may be better investments such as National Guard, law enforcement, sales, and industrial operations all of which are indispensable and proven occupations.
During a bought of unemployment in 2013, I took on retail work. I had a lot of help in getting that job that included placement assistance by a government agency and travel to work by way of public transport. I learned many things in that experience. Working in retail has been one of the more pleasant aspects of my efforts to maintain an increasing measure of economic independence away from physical strife. Working in retail has been an excellent change of pace. The energy and experiences are quite thrilling and the impact of contributions directly obvious. Yet, there is another side to retail. Sometimes there are more individuals than budget or transaction volume allows and you have to stay home.
Part-time work is great but sometimes the hours may be as few as 4 hours in a week. I am thankful for the hours that I can get. When the hours began to diminish to such a level, another opportunity for work compatible with my background and on a regular schedule emerged. Over twenty days later, while I have the job on paper, I am still waiting for a start date. I think back on the income I could have had by now if things started shortly after I started. All this and much more is part of the reality of employment in America.
There are impacts from underemployment and unsteady employment situations. You may have to decide between food and car insurance. Decide between rent and automobile fuel. Sometimes you just have to walk everywhere or ride the bus as many of the newest in the workforce are beginning to rediscover. That means you often have to remain cloistered up in a place for extended periods as you await better tidings or conserve what you have for when you really need to use it. It may also be an indication to start a business.
I am with relatives right now, and that has been my main saving grace. Not everyone is as fortunate, and I may join the unfortunate multitudes before long. Will I get beyond these circumstances? I would like to think so, but underemployment and economic uncertainty at a micro level may be a trend few of us will escape.
Full Employment and the Promise of Security
When you can get a steady, reliable, quality full-time job, it can definitely benefit you. You gain the ability to live in a home (house, hotel, or apartment). That home may have heat, clean running water, a place to sleep and other measures to refresh and sustain you. You can feed yourself, gain proper attire, and transport yourself more easily. All these become challenges or unavailable if net income is very low; net income is far below cost of living; or you have high total debt or no substantial savings.
On the other hand, a good job can produce a false sense of security. I liken it to the recent spate of Federal furloughs. In that case, 800,000 or so persons faced the possibility of having a very secure position compromised by events outside their control. It turns out that there are very few positions you can hold that will offer you the kind of long-term material security competitive with Welfare and Public Housing for those that qualify. There are many good reasons to stick with it, stick with pure free market transactional employment and try to achieve a relatively greater measure of self-governing economic consistency. Never give up or give in to the extent resources and circumstances allow. Sometimes, however, you do have to give in and embrace another way. I have some ideas on a different way to go about the issue of more people than there are jobs. The extent to which employment situations diminish in number, quality, and certainty, then many of those reasons to avoid State subsistence may start to wither in their absolute relevance.
Long-Term Economic Forecasts
Millions of people were employed in a manufacturing work that some have said will not return. If the experts are right in saying that the manufacturing jobs at the level they were at in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, will not return, then millions of people will not have a job again who are not predisposed to other kinds of work. Others do see the situation more optimistically. Every few months, if technology plus business planning continues to reduce the amount of people needed to do jobs, that is another several million jobs that will not be available for us today or tomorrow or for the people who come later. If fewer people are actively provided work in an environment that requires it for basic living, then there is probably less space for the rest of us long-term. Otherwise, major changes will have take place. Today, these challenges do appear to be part of what defines the employment situation in America.
It will get better overall. More likely, when it does, it will be a surprise to most of us. For many, like myself, who saw real gains at one point in their career but saw it all lost, we may be in retirement when that occurs. The span of time for things to recover to a very prosperous level could prove to be large in generational terms.
Getting a Job, Keeping it, and Doing Well
The very best way to get ahead is through your own business. I did it before in the 1990’s. I failed at it. It remains the best path to success in America if you approach business the right way. You just need product, quality legal protection/advice, a CPA, good online sales and marketing and sufficient funding for all the above. CPA and legal retainer costs, filing costs, and product development time will be the main barriers to overcome initially. If you succeed, you have the opportunity to give back to the community and foster an environment that helps others better meet their potential and succeed in life.
The second best choice is to get a Federal, political, defense, judiciary related or think tank job. You have to be cut out for it. Your background must be impeccable in terms of social, civil, and financial history and status. Educational qualifications, social suitability, and professional reputation determine upward mobility. If this describes your qualities, this can be the clearest direction to pursue.
Vocations can prove to be more steady employment in many cases. Some jobs always have to be done and any job can be learned. If work is available and you are capable of learning that work, you may discover a career that eventually has rewards not initially obvious. A vocational position can involve all that you can physically and mentally bring to the effort. The result of hard work is pure motivation and character made real.
A strong work ethic, a willingness to work hard and smart and get dirty or break into a steady sweat if necessary are things to embrace without reservation. True commitment and focus in whatever you are employed to do is important well before you even consider talent or academics. Talent or knowledge is there to smooth out the results but hard work and a true work ethic is the first job perspective to develop and apply.
Your choice is to be or strive to be an excellent employee by the standards of the company in such a way that leads to a long-term position at a senior contributor or managerial or executive level. Few of us can qualify in this way as there are fewer opportunities than individuals. If you have the right combination of personality, communication skills, and situational judgement, not universally, but for that particular work environment, your chance of success is greater.
In America, you can get a really good job, achieve a steady income, and be a valuable contributor among a team of friends. You have to be careful though. Material success can be very fleeting and you must have the right mix of qualities and adaptability in terms of personality, knowledge, and skills to prosper economically over the long-term.
Some of us are success stories, and remain so. Financial and material success is not everything we should single mindedly strive to gain as the central goal of our lives. That can make us as poor inwardly as we are accomplished outwardly. Instead, the option to undertake is to succeed with the right balance with nature, community resources, and in terms of our general beliefs and standards.
To exist at a healthy level in this world you need enough success to endure in a proper fashion. You have to choose acceptable trade offs to achieve the measure of success you would seek. There are options and some of them seem really hard. In America, choices do exist if you have the courage, mindset, and strength to forge ahead despite previous failure. I have failed in life in major ways, so far, more than I have succeeded but the history of mankind proves that better days do come.
For the many of us who fail to achieve, maintain, and improve upon basic economic security, the success of others reminds us that it is possible to get ahead in America. That may be one of the reasons why we should continue to try.
- The September jobs report: We waited three weeks for this? (aei-ideas.org)
- With 148K Jobs Added, Unemployment Numbers Still Troubling (atlantablackstar.com)
- Not so fast: The improving unemployment rate masks problems (miamiherald.com)
- The Sweet Smell of Underemployment (outofourmind.net)