How Underemployment Is Affecting The Job Market

Jul 16, 2018
Originally published on July 16, 2018 12:13 am

While unemployment has hit record lows, there's another number that also gets a lot of attention — underemployment. Around 33 percent of college graduates are underemployed.

Underemployment measures the number of workers placed in jobs that are below their qualifications from a bachelor's degree and beyond. But the effects can be different, depending on the field of work.

Julia Fallon is about to graduate from her paralegal certification program in a few weeks. She received her bachelor's in American Sign Language interpretation, but couldn't find stable work. She says her biggest frustration now is not the lack of jobs for paralegals, but the pay.

"I've been astonished at the low-balling that is going on even for attorneys, let alone paralegals, which at the beginning of the program I was told would be much better paying than what I'm actually looking at," Fallon says.

Like Fallon, Josh Borchard also decided to change careers. He graduated with his master's degree in space studies and planetary sciences, but after years of working odd jobs and barely making ends meet, he decided to go back to get his teaching license.

"I worked three years off and on doing odd jobs — research jobs all the way to working retail," Borchard says. "I'm almost 30 years old now, and I have never made more than about $25,000 a year."

Borchard's investment paid off though as he recently got a job offer at a high school teaching science.

But people still have trouble finding jobs in their chosen field, and some employers complain that they're having trouble filling the increased amount of jobs.

Scott Dobroski, an employer trends analyst at Glassdoor, says that while it's a job-seeker's market, data trends and employers say they have trouble finding "quality candidates who can tackle tomorrow's business challenges in their respective kind of pool or lane."

Dobroski says many employers look for certain skill sets, including critical thinking and data analytics, but that not all candidates will have those.

"That's the difference between a good candidate and really a quality candidate," he says

As companies grow, employers are faced with increased demand and know that they need extra help, but not necessarily what they need, says former recruiter Dawn Fay.

Fay, who's now a hiring manager and district president of recruiting agency Robert Half, says it's these situations that make it harder to match candidates to the available jobs.

"Sometimes people are looking for skill sets that are really so vast that they sometimes cover more than one area — and what companies need to do is get a little bit more focus, a little bit more granular on the skills they need," Fay says.

Fay says most people don't have every skill that the employers are asking for, but they have enough that they would add value to the company.

Once hired, Fay says, these candidates would be able to grow and gain more skills, all the while adding to their value.

Dobroski and Fay agree that the problem might not be a lack of qualified candidates, but rather that employers are asking for too much in the jobs they are listing.

This, Dobroski says, could be a remnant effect from the Great Recession.

"Many employers are still building back out, and what they're doing is being — trying to be, actually — much smarter about the jobs that they offer and the people they find. So pinpointing that right person is tougher, but at the same time, they could be asking for too much."

Not all the problems are caused by employers searching for candidates that can check every box on their list, Dobroski says. Another issue revolves around the education systems these candidates go through.

"We definitely think there is still a large disconnect between what academic universities have to offer to prepare students for the real world," he says.

Data science jobs are a great example of the this, Dobroski says, because they are in high demand as companies try to figure out ways to target and grow their audiences.

"It's really interesting that, up until a few years ago, data science wasn't even a major or something that people could learn about, study about and learn that code in college," Dobroski says.

Some universities are adding these program to their curriculum, but the change is slow.

For recent graduates and those just beginning to navigate the market, Fay says networking is key.

"It's so important to talk to people within the industry that you have interest in ... [and] get their advice," she says. "Find out how they got there. Find out what types of things that you can be doing as an individual to get some more skills and to get better educated in that area."

A conversation like that could be a foot in the door, but the questions shouldn't stop there, Dobroski says.

"Before you say yes to a job or an employer, make sure to ask about career opportunities and upward mobility," he says. "Are there advancement opportunities at that organization? It's also about having a career progression plan."

NPR's Wynne Davis adapted this for Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Time now for The Call-In. Last week we heard from you about how the economy is faring in your community. While unemployment has hit record lows, there's another number that also gets a lot of attention - underemployment. Around 33 percent of college graduates are underemployed. That measures the number of workers placed in jobs that are below their qualifications from a bachelor's and beyond. But as we heard from you, it has a different effect depending on your field of work.

Julia Fallon of Jacksonville, Fla., is about to graduate from her paralegal certification program in a few weeks. She received her bachelor's in American Sign Language interpretation, but she couldn't find stable work. She says her biggest frustration now is not the lack of jobs for paralegals, but the pay.

JULIA FALLON: I've been astonished at the low-balling that is going on even for attorneys, let alone paralegals, which at the beginning of the program I was told would be much better paying than what I'm actually looking at.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Josh Borchard of Minneapolis, Minn., graduated with his master's in space studies and planetary sciences. After years of working odd jobs and barely making ends meet, he decided to go back to get his teaching license.

JOSH BORCHARD: I worked three years off and on doing odd jobs - research jobs all the way to working retail. And I'm almost 30 years old now, and I have never made more than about $25,000 a year.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Josh's investment in getting retrained paid off though. He recently got a job offer at a high school teaching science. People are having trouble finding jobs in their chosen field. But some employers complain that they're having trouble filling jobs. To help us understand that disconnect, we're joined now by Dawn Fay. She used to be a recruiter. She's now a hiring manager and district president of a recruiting agency, Robert Half. And Scott Dobroski is an employer trends analyst at Glassdoor. Welcome to the program both of you.

DAWN FAY: Thank you for having us.

SCOTT DOBROSKI: Thank you for having us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Scott, I want to start with you. What are employers saying about the labor market right now? Is this a good time to be applying for jobs?

DOBROSKI: The overall message is, it's very much a job-seeker's market. But what we are seeing in data trends as well is hearing anecdotally from employers - they are still having a tough time finding quality candidates who can tackle tomorrow's business challenges in their respective kind of pool or lane - what they do best. So they're looking for some skills - such as data analytical skills, critical thinking skills - that some candidates may or may not have. And so that's the difference between a good candidate and really a quality candidate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dawn, what are you hearing from hiring managers?

FAY: Well, as Scott had mentioned, there are certainly a lot of jobs open in the market. And whenever there is an increased demand due to growth, sometimes companies - they know they need the extra help but they're not sure exactly what they need. And at those times it seems that they're finding a harder time matching the candidate with the job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why that disconnect?

FAY: You know, sometimes people are looking for skill sets that are really so vast that they sometimes cover more than one area. And what companies need to do is get a little bit more focus, a little bit more granular on the skills they need - not absolutely everything A through Z because a lot of times people do not have that, but they've got enough of those skills where they can come in, add value to an organization and really help them grow, and then get more skills within the company as they go and be a really valued candidate for that company.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Scott and Dawn, what I'm hearing from both of you is that it's the companies that are asking maybe too much of the people that they're looking for rather than there not being qualified people. And that's because we're in this age of disruption - right? - where people really don't know what the next phase of their business may be.

DOBROSKI: I think that's definitely part of it. I think what's going on also with a lot of jobs - especially since the Great Recession - many employers are still building back out. And what they're doing is being - trying to be, actually - much smarter about the jobs that they offer and the people they find. And so pinpointing that right person is tougher, but at the same time they could be asking for too much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Scott, what role does education have? Are universities and colleges doing enough to help job seekers prepare for this economy in your opinion?

DOBROSKI: We definitely think there is still a large disconnect between what academic universities have to offer to prepare students for the real world. So, for instance, data science is one of the best examples to look at. The data science world is an industry, a world, that almost every single employer needs and wants now. Everyone has an online presence. Everyone is trying to get to more users or customers. And so the data scientist is someone who studies all of this and using data makes really smart business recommendations. However, it's really interesting that, up until a few years ago, data science wasn't even a major or something that people could learn about, study about and learn that code in college. So over the past few years we've seen a small handful of universities starting to introduce an actual data science program, but it's actually somewhat baffling that this is such a fast-growing skillset yet it didn't exist up until recently.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: People who might be looking for jobs now or in the future, people just leaving college would love to hear what's your best advice to someone entering the job market - either people that are new to job searching or people who are trying to transition to something else?

FAY: Well, I think the most important thing people can do whenever they're looking for a role is to really use their network. It's so important to talk to people within the industry that you have interest in, within those jobs and skill sets that you have interest in, get their advice. Find out how they got there. Find out what types of things that you can be doing as an individual to get some more skills and to get better educated in that area, and let people know you're eager to get in to that space because they can help you - potentially be a referral and refer you into an organization and help you get that first step in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it sounds like there are plenty of opportunities in this labor market, but there is also an affordability crisis. Many of the people who called in talked about the fact that they couldn't afford to take entry-level jobs even though they're qualified.

DOBROSKI: I completely agree. It's also knowing about - before you say yes to a job or an employer, make sure to ask about career opportunities and upward mobility. Are there advancement opportunities at that organization? And it's also about having a career progression plan. You may have to take a parallel step. Sometimes you may have to do a job - it's not exactly what you want to do, but you do that, gain some added experience, and then you know in one to two years, it could hopefully catapult you to something else. So, again, research, research, research the job opportunity or the employer. It's too easy to know this day and age, and then, you know, take the right job for you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Scott Dobroski is an employer trends analyst at Glassdoor. Dawn Fay is district president of the recruiting agency Robert Half. Thank you both so very much.

FAY: Thank you.

DOBROSKI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.