Career Advice

Underemployment: What it is And How to Deal With It

underemployment unchallenging job

It’s stressful enough to try and find a job that pays a living wage. It’s even more frustrating when people, not-so-helpfully, remind you that there are jobs advertised everywhere. On one hand, they are correct. On the other, they often fail to see that so many of those jobs simply aren’t adequate. Why is that? The problem is underemployment. 

What is Underemployment?

When economic experts discuss employment they aren’t just concerned with whether people have jobs. They also care about the ‘quality’ of those jobs. Specifically:

  • Does the full-time job pay enough?
  • Are people employed in jobs using all of their skills? 
  • Can they work enough hours? 

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, that person is underemployed. According to Payscale, up to 22 million Americans are currently underemployed. That’s a lot, right? The issue is particularly pervasive among recent graduates. Per the Federal Reserve, 33.8% of recent college graduates are underemployed — they are working at a job that doesn’t require a college degree (even though they have one!). 

Unfortunately, underemployment hits the minorities particularly hard. Black men are the most likely to be underemployed. As of December 2018, there was a 6.3 percentage point gap between black and white male underemployment.  

3 Signs That You Are Underemployed

Underemployment is more of the more ignored types of unemployment because it can skew employment numbers. For example, the employment rate might be 75% in a given area. However, that doesn’t mean things are going well if nearly 100% of those with jobs are underemployed.

Respectively, even workers themselves struggle to understand if they are fully employed or not. If you are in doubt too, ask yourself the following questions: 

Do You Work Full Time?

How many hours is full-time? According to the IRS, the full-time workweek is 30 hours. Some people believe full-time employment is about 40 hours per week. Many employers use the number of hours you work per week to determine if you qualify for certain benefits,  accrue vacation time, or calculate seniority. There’s also the simple fact that people who work full-time hours make more money. If you aren’t working full time, you are underemployed.

Are You Working Multiple Part-Time Jobs to Make Ends Meet?

When people can’t find adequate, full-time employment, they often work several part-time jobs to make the income they need. The problem is that part-time or gig work rarely pays benefits. Also, juggling multiple chores can leave you burned out, stressed, and still not earning enough. If that’s the case, you should consider looking into a new career field

part time barista job

Are you in a full-time position that leaves you bored or unchallenged?

Underemployment is also defined by the use of talents and skills, as well as fulfillment. If your job doesn’t mentally challenge you, then you may be underemployed. For example, if were hired as an executive assistant, but only given admin chores such as answering the phone and planning travel, this may feel like a ‘downgrade’ for your previous role where you attended board meetings, created strategic roadmaps, and did the bookkeeping. 

How to Deal With Underemployment

If you are underemployed, take a look at the following strategies for improving your situation.

Make The Most of Your Current Job

The best place to start is right where you are. Ask your employer if it is possible for you to work more hours, cross-train in other departments, or take on additional responsibilities?  Sometimes, employers only offer part-time hours because they perceive nobody is interested in taking on that job full-time. If you see them, take opportunities to make suggestions for improvements and offer to take on tasks that would allow you to use or develop important technical skills.

Aggressively Develop New Skills

Don’t bemoan the fact that you are not using your skills. Instead, it may be time to face reality: your skills are no longer as marketable, or that you need to build up some complementary skills to fill in a few gaps.

developing new skills

In any case, dedicate time to your own learning and personal development. Try one or more of the following:

  • Volunteer for any employer-sponsored training you can find.
  • Head back to school for a degree or just to take some important courses.
  • Try free or inexpensive online learning programs.

Just remember that continuing your education means investing your time and sometimes your money. Make sure you are developing the right skills and choosing the right course of study. Research your chosen field to learn which skills are hot now and in the future.

Exercise The Skills You do Have

Maybe you have the skills you need. You just haven’t had the opportunity to apply them. Be careful, unused skills can grow stagnant. You should find ways to utilize what you know as much as possible. For example: 

  • Do volunteer work that allows you to use important skills.
  • Ask for work with or apprentice for someone who is more established in your field.
  • Pursue hobbies that allow you to develop your skills.
  • Look into freelancing or work from home opportunities to practice your craft.

To Conclude 

If your current employment situation isn’t adequate, don’t lose hope. For many people, there is a cure for underemployment. Put these strategies to use, and you may find a job that meets your needs and takes advantage of your talents!


  • Elena Prokopets

    Elena runs content operations at Freesumes since 2017. She works closely with copywriters, designers, and invited career experts to ensure that all content meets our highest editorial standards. Up to date, she wrote over 200 career-related pieces around resume writing, career advice... more

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