Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Underemployment Puzzle: The Effects of Overqualification and Involuntary Part-Time Status on Volunteering

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Underemployment Puzzle: The Effects of Overqualification and Involuntary Part-Time Status on Volunteering

Article excerpt


Although officially over in 2009, the Great Recession has raised fundamental questions about the labor market in the United States and how structural changes in that market may affect volunteering. Unemployment rates are typically the focus of concern, but "the conventional unemployment rate understates current labor market distress and misses the huge growth in underemployment (Katz, 2010)." Similarly, strong literature examines the impact of unemployment on volunteering (Apinunmahakul, Barham, & Devlin, 2009; Kulik, 2000; Mattingly & Bianchi, 2003; Taniguchi, 2006), but our understanding of whether underemployment affects volunteering overlooks what may be a significant employment status for the foreseeable future. This article addresses this gap by asking whether underemployment increases or decreases the likelihood of volunteering.

Definitional ambiguity is a core trait of underemployment and undoubtedly a reason why the relationship between underemployment and volunteering is rarely studied. For example, the federal government defines an underemployed person as an involuntary part-time worker (Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 1994; Sum and Khatiwada, 2010; Katz, 2010). Using this definition, the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates there are about 8.9 million persons underemployed as of January 2012, nearly double the number prior to the Great Recession. In addition, Elmendorf (2011) notes that structural impediments in the labor market result in mismatches between the existing job openings and the characteristics of job seekers, and thus labor markets include segments that are underqualified or overqualified for available positions. The overqualified are also underemployed in the sense that they are employed in positions that underutilize extant knowledge, skills, and abilities (McKee-Ryan & Harvey, 2011).

Such definitional differences presents the opportunity to address the important phenomenon of underemployment and inconsistent findings regarding the relationship between employment status and volunteering. Therefore, this article compares and contrasts the relationship between underemployment and volunteering under the theoretical frameworks of a consumption model of volunteering versus an investment model of volunteering. The conceptual distinction between underemployment as involuntary part-time employment and overqualification enables us to test contrasting hypotheses about volunteering as a function of employment status.


Underemployment does not neatly fit into existing categories of volunteerism correlates. On one hand, underemployment may be a form of employment status existing somewhere between employed and unemployed or some derivative of part- or full-time employment. This conception is consistent with common definitions of underemployment as involuntary part-time employment. From this perspective, underemployment involves both an objective component, less than full-time employment, and a subjective component that presents as dissatisfaction with this employment status (Abrahamsen, 2010; Bender & Skatun, 2009; Creed & Moore, 2006; Julian, Hall, & Yerger, 2010). Alternatively, underemployment may be an attribute fit between a person's education and occupation. This conception is consistent with another common definition of underemployment that suggests that a person is underemployed if he or she is overqualified for his or her occupation in terms of knowledge, skills, abilities, or experience. Overqualification may be either objectively determined with comparisons of occupation requirements to individual qualifications (Borgen, Amundson, & Harder, 1988; Glyde, 1977; Rubb, 2005) or subjectively determined from employee perceptions about the occupation-qualification nexus (Burke, 1997; Burris, 1983; Johnson & Johnson, 1996; Khan & Morrow, 1991; Maynard, Joseph, & Maynard, 2006). …

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