How To Make The Best Of Underemployment

Darlings, I have a job at last!

Rather predictably, I’ve gone from being unemployed to being “underemployed.” Despite my advanced degree and several years of experience, the only job I was able to find in my small town was part time, close to minimum wage and not in the field that I’d truly like to work in.

I’m far from alone in this situation. 14.7% of people in the U.S. are un- or underemployed. And Millennials are the most underemployed generation overall. Whether that’s reflected in responsibilities, pay, hours, or a combination of all three, many of us are not satisfied with our working lives.

But there are ways to make the best of underemployment. I felt I was in need of advice from someone who has successfully navigated a period of underemployment and helped other people with their career advancement, so I spoke with Emily Wagner, Partner and Managing Director at Webber Kerr Associates, an executive search and management consulting firm, to get her take on how to navigate early career woes, and how to make it to the next step in one piece.

We can do it, y’all! Here are some tips to help you out:


1. Find Ways To Stay Relevant

Underemployment is not only dissatisfying in the present, it can also cause a lot of stress about the future and whether or not you will ever get the job you want.

“It is really easy to fall into a trap of focusing very reactively on your current employment and financial situation, but you have to keep the big picture in mind, always,” says Wagner. “If you are waitressing to make ends meet while you job hunt in your field, it is crucial you stay informed within your target industry. Follow publications, network, find ways to be as knowledgeable as if you were working in the field full-time.”


2. Take Your Current Job Seriously

Maybe you are better educated than your superiors, co-workers and clients/customers. Guess what? That doesn’t necessarily mean much in this situation, unless you have specific skills you’re keen to offer. Regardless of where you went to college or what job you were doing previously, treat this job as you would your dream job.

Respect your superiors and co-workers, show up on time, and be engaged and enthusiastic. You will have a much better day-to-day life if you have a good relationship with everyone at work. If nothing else, these people will provide your references for your next position.


3. Assess Your Long Term Goals

“Think seriously about your career goals within the industry you seek and understand if they align with the geography and social culture you live in,” advises Wagner. “If you are seeking a long-term career in an industry that is synonymous with specific cities/states/even countries, think seriously about relocating. If you are underemployed and not able to get a foot in the door in a small town, or a culture that conflicts with your goals, the earlier in your career you move, the less disruption you will feel.”

I know first-hand how difficult it can be to get all your life ducks in a row. I didn’t choose my current location—I moved to join my fiancé after three years of being in a long-distance relationship. Sometimes you have to ask yourself serious questions and steel yourself for the consequences: Are you willing to put your relationship before your career? Is location the be-all and end-all to you? Where do you want to be in five years’ time? Remember there are no “should”s here—these choices are personal.


4. Enjoy The Perks Of Your Current Job

Be thankful for the little things your job brings to your life. Maybe that’s a discount, tips, a flexible schedule, or the opportunity to be on your feet and active all day. (I was definitely in need of someone separating me from my best friend, the couch, during unemployment.)

For me, the best perk is the uniform. Maybe this is my British socialist side coming out, but I am digging the fact that I have a uniform again. It makes it so much easier to keep on top of laundry, there’s no decision-making first thing in the morning, and hey, everyone looks good in black.


5. Redefine “Experience”

We have this cultural idea that all entry-level or service/retail jobs are easy, devoid of real skill, or even something that doesn’t “count” towards your career experiences. But you are actually learning a number of transferable skills, whether that’s in sales, administration, customer service or just seeing up-close how an organization or business works.

I happen to have excellent managers, and so I try to think about what it is that I like so much about them: they listen to others, they try to make things fun with code names and silly notes in the staff room, and they’ve created an atmosphere that is both focused and relaxed. Even if you don’t like your manager’s style so much, try to make a note of what irks you so that you can learn from their mistakes.

“All of the most well-rounded career executives I have spoken with have a vast array of multi-cultural life experiences,” says Wagner. Everyone has a story, and this is part of yours.


6. Be Assertive With The Job Hunt

Wagner is passionate about encouraging people, especially women, to be more assertive with potential employers and colleagues.

“Something I commonly see is a hesitation, or a timidness, to be aggressive and innovative in your job search,” says Wagner. “If you are applying for a job and you can identify the hiring manager, HR partner/recruiter representing the job, or even those who would be your peers should you be offered the role, connect to them on LinkedIn immediately and send a brief hello or introduction. This puts your name at top of their minds when they are going through hundreds of candidate names who have applied.”

If there is no job being advertised, reach out to potential employers for an informational interview. See if they will make time for a coffee or phone call. (Make sure to prepare questions beforehand, dress professionally, take a copy of your resume, and follow up afterwards to say thank you!)


7. Don’t Underestimate Yourself

When you’re job hunting, some days it can seem like there is not a single role out there that you are qualified for. If you are a recent graduate, you may be thinking, “How can I get the experience required if no one will hire me first?”

Wagner says to go for the jobs you want, even if there is a gap in desired experience.

“I see individuals not applying for jobs they appear slightly underqualified for, which is a huge mistake and opportunity lost,” says Wagner. She advises candidates to present themselves as the right cultural fit for the organization, and to demonstrate their drive and desire to learn above all else. “I have seen it time and again, [employers] favor the underdog with a lot of passion,” she says. “Don’t undermine your worth for a job you want without even trying first.”


8. Appreciate What You Have Going For You

We should never lose sight of how good we have it. Yes, it is really really really hard to not be making enough money, especially if your friends and siblings are getting promoted or working in higher paid industries. But always remember how much you really have going for you.

Sometimes I get trapped in an emotional vortex because my life now is dramatically less comfortable than the one I knew growing up. There are no vacations, impulse purchases, or even trips to the dentist, and some days I start feeling bitter and envious of friends with more money. This is not the kind of person I want to be. When I find myself thinking like this, I take a moment to appreciate all the people in my life who care about me and want me to succeed.

And, it is worth saying, not everyone gets the opportunity to go to college or even finish high school. Despite current worries about money and career success, those of us with higher education are the lucky ones, and we should not take that for granted or forget the most vulnerable members of our communities.

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9. Stay Occupied Outside Of Work

Even if you have the best job ever, it should never be the only thing you are about. Spend time with your friends and family, volunteer or be active in your community, and do things that make you feel good about yourself. That may be attending religious services, trying out group fitness classes, or making the time to be creative. Sometimes you just need a break from thinking about your career!


10. Learn From Your Experiences

Wagner credits her early career experiences as a major influence in what she does today.

“After a few corporate roles and experience under my belt, I took the fire I lit as a hungry first-time job hunter and made a career out of that passion,” she says. “[Starting out] I applied for everything and anything, truly. The competition was so aggressive, I went on every interview offered for the experience alone. I learned from every botched interview, every great conversation and collected tons of professional contacts.”

One of the major cons of living in a small town is that I will never stop running into all the people who interviewed (and rejected!) me. However, by seeing each interview as an opportunity to connect, regardless of whether or not it ends in a job offer, you will always get something out of the experience—and if you stay in touch and act cordial when you see each other, they will know you’re a professional through and through.


11. Remember That You Are Never “Just” Anything

Remember that episode of “Friends” where Ross writes a list of pros/cons for dating Julie versus Rachel, and about the latter he complains she is, “Just a waitress”? We all know the pain of being seen as “just” something.

Unlike our parents, many of us don’t have a 9-5 job or the opportunity to stay at the same organization for years on end. We have our fingers in many pies and have to adapt to all kinds of situations. It’s actually pretty difficult for me to swiftly answer the question, “What do you do?” because my life is part time work, freelancing, volunteer work and independent projects.

Only you get to define who you are. It’s OK to say, “I’m a waitress and an aspiring actress” or “I work for this company but I do photography on the side.” Even though you might—no, scratch that, you will definitely—be on the receiving end of a good number of eye rolls, it’s still your life, and no one has the right to tell you how you should feel about yourself.* Also, the more you tell people about yourself and your goals, the more you open yourself up to new opportunities.

*Raise your hand if you have been personally victimized by someone who thinks the arts have no value.


12. Have Faith In The Future

The working world is especially hard for our generation: we are highly educated and in debt because of it, yet decent employment is elusive. Remember that you are not alone, and none of this is your fault or the result of “laziness.”

“I graduated college and began my job search in the worst of the economy in 2008,” says Wagner. “There were so many obstacles in front of me and I had bills knocking on my door prior to graduation. But it was during this time, during the hustle, that I realized my passion for the employment industry itself.”

This is what most of us want, in the end: to discover more about ourselves as professionals, and to get to a more exciting (yet financially stable) place. Sometimes, the future flat-out terrifies me. But I try to remind myself that I could not have predicted most of my opportunities so far—younger me could not have placed my current home, South Carolina, on a map!—and there’s no reason why that’s not going to be the case again.

I don’t know what will come along for me work-wise, or for any of you who are reading. I do know that that’s not all that we are. We are members of friendship groups and families and communities. We have skills and hobbies and passions, and most importantly, we have thoughts and opinions and values. Our working lives may not reflect all that we have to offer—at least not right now, anyway. But we will continue to grow into the people that we want to be.

Are you un- or underemployed? Tweet us @LitDarling!

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