Five Ways to Tackle Recent Grad Underemployment


Lately, we have been hearing a lot about the strong job market, low unemployment, and in spite of a currently volatile stock market, continuing strong job and vacancy numbers. But for recent graduates of higher education, that is not always the reality.

The press has been detailing a particular challenge for recent grads: underemployment. Last month Inside Higher Education published a piece regarding this dynamic. They state, “The unemployment rate for young college graduates exceeds that of the general population, and about 41 percent of recent college graduates — and 33.8 percent of all college graduates — are underemployed in that they are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree…”

Underemployment is defined as the condition in which people in a labor force are employed at less than full-time or regular jobs or at jobs inadequate with respect to their training or economic needs. (Merriam-Webster) For example, you have a bachelor’s degree but are working at a job that only requires a high school diploma, or you are employed part-time and can’t pay your rent.

What struck me while I reviewed the multiple articles on the subject is — OK. So, this is where we are, but what are people in the situation supposed to do about it? 

Here’s what I think could help when or if you find yourself in this situation:

  1. The Long Haul — Don’t Give Up:  Remember that college graduates, particularly in the liberal arts, often catch up on salary longitudinally over their lifetimes. The New York Times covered this last fall with their article “In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure” where they talked about the dynamic of liberal arts “soft skills” and how they may not pay a high salary initially, but as those skills are honed and used they can end up leading to a higher cumulative salary over a lifetime. For example, maybe you are a barista now, but can you show teamwork and leadership qualities that allow you to move up into management or to a corporate position? Keep perspective in mind and don’t give up.
  2. Keep Learning:  Did you major in your passion? Did you love the subject matter? Keep reading. Keep finding ways to engage in that conversation. Figure out where you can interact with others who are looking at those topics or working in the role you may want. Participate in the online forums around your subject matter. Don’t stop learning, growing, and thinking critically. 
  3. Keep Moving:  Get out there and interact. I know after a long day at a low paying job you may feel exhausted and hopeless, but keep moving! Watch for networking sessions, attend talks, join a group that focuses on your professional interests and attend their events. Go to job fairs and chat up the people behind the tables to learn about what is available. Maybe an agriculture company actually has a social media position available. Don’t make assumptions – keep talking and asking probing questions. Find a professional association that you can join as a new graduate in the industry or profession where you would like to work.
  4. Explore Options:  Want to start a business in your career of choice? We are still a country that encourages entrepreneurship. Write up a business plan, seek out a partner, look for funding. Want to work in a position you covet at an existing business? Find the people who currently hold those positions. Connect with them and ask for a few minutes to do an informational interview about their career. (Check the link for lots of info on the how and why.) People love to talk about themselves!
  5. Apply, Apply, Apply:  One thing I can guarantee is that you will remain in the situation if you don’t take action to work towards changing the situation. Keep trying. Keep searching for jobs and applying. Set up email job alerts and check them every day. Talk to your manager at work about how you can move up. Is there a larger corporate structure that sources new candidates from the existing workforce (internal hiring) for different types of positions that require your education level? Keep your interview suit pressed and ready to go!

Most importantly — Don’t give up!

Underemployment is a real and challenging problem. Advocate politically for an economy that creates more high paying jobs and less jobs that take four to make ends meet. But in the meantime, don’t give up! There are people moving jobs and careers at all times. Keep yourself in the loop so the next person who moves up or on could be you.

Good luck out there — I know you can do it!


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