Underemployment: What EA Professionals Need to Know: As the "Jobless Recovery" Proceeds, Underemployment Is Becoming a Fixture in the Workplace, and EAPs Will Need to Help Managers and Employees Cope

By Bloomfield, Beth | The Journal of Employee Assistance, August 2003 | Go to article overview

Underemployment: What EA Professionals Need to Know: As the "Jobless Recovery" Proceeds, Underemployment Is Becoming a Fixture in the Workplace, and EAPs Will Need to Help Managers and Employees Cope


Bloomfield, Beth, The Journal of Employee Assistance


Melinda, a 1998 graduate of a prestigious engineering school, lost her well-paying high-tech job a year and a half ago when the company folded. She has been unable to find work in her chosen field, even at a reduced salary, and reluctantly took a job as a sales associate with a national retail chain.

Brian, a software engineer in his mid-40s, was called into his manager's office one recent morning and told that his salary was being cut in half because the company could no longer shoulder that cost. With two teenagers on the way to college, he has decided he needs to find another job, but worries about losing his benefits if he quits or is let go before he has one in hand.

Charlie, a long-time manager with a consumer products manufacturer, counts himself lucky that his job has not been eliminated (yet), but resents the fact that after the company flattened its management structure, he now does the same work he did 15 years ago. He feels stuck, but does not believe he would find another job if he decided to leave.

The common thread running through these stories is "underemployment," a term used to define situations in which a worker is employed but not in his/her desired capacity, whether in terms of compensation, hours, or level of skill and experience. The federal government does not compile statistics on the number of Americans who are underemployed, citing the difficulty of developing an objective set of criteria, but ABC News, in a report broadcast in July, estimated it to be 4.6 million.

Recent studies by the Federal Reserve Board and economic research institutions indicate that while the economy may be recovering from the recession, employment is not rebounding as it did in previous recoveries. Many jobs have been lost permanently, especially in industries that have been restructuring to take advantage of large-scale investments in technology (mostly during the 1990s), the availability of cheaper labor overseas, and new approaches to management that encourage leaner staffing.

A study by Rutgers University economic researchers found that more than one-third (35 percent) of workers who regain employment after being laid off take jobs that pay less (sometimes substantially less) than their previous jobs. Seventy percent of those surveyed think now is a bad time to find a quality job, and younger workers are more pessimistic than older workers. According to research by Right Management Consultants of Philadelphia, it's taking nearly twice as long to find a job today than it did two years ago. For senior executives, the increase has been even more dramatic.

BEHIND THE HEADLINES

Underemployed workers may first surface in an employee assistance program with financial concerns. They may be prudent with money but now find themselves using savings to pay current expenses, or they may already have been "overextended" and their new job situation pushed them over the brink. Sometimes the problem may lie with a worker's spouse who is underemployed and putting pressure on your employee to bring home more money and benefits.

Anger and frustration can also land an employee in an EAP, though sometimes they express themselves in subtle ways, such as when an employee is moody or uncommunicative. Anger can go underground, as sabotage; the signs may be missing deadlines, uncooperative behavior in team settings, or conflicts with peers on the job. Negativity flourishes in these settings and can have a strong ripple effect on workplace morale and productivity.

"There's nothing clinically to diagnose in these cases," says Greg DeLapp, who heads the EAP at Carpenter Technology, Corp. in Reading, Pennsylvania. "They're just having a bad day--repeatedly"

Shame is another by-product of underemployment, particularly in a society where a person's identity is tied closely to his or her work. "We define ourselves so much by our jobs, we think we must be defective as a person" if a job is perceived as a step down, says Jan Boxer, principal of Strategic Partners, Inc. …

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