What to Do if You're Underemployed

A man looking bored with his head resting on his hand while working on his computer in an office.

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Being unemployed is clearly problematic -- you need an income to pay your bills. But what if you have a job that doesn't align with your professional abilities and goals or allow you to reach your full potential? It's a concept known as underemployment, and it impacts 46% of Americans, according to job site Payscale.

What is underemployment?

Underemployment can mean a few different things, including:

  • Earning less than what you could be making based on your education and expertise.
  • Working fewer hours than you'd like to (for example, holding down a part-time job because you can't get a full-time role).
  • Doing a job you find very basic given the skills you possess (for example, being a receptionist whose primary responsibility is to answer the phone, when you have a degree in management).

What should you do if you're underemployed?

Underemployment isn't always bothersome. Some people may even choose to be underemployed because doing so gives them the quality of life they desire. For example, a college professor who's amassed a lot of wealth might stop teaching at the university level and instead run workshops at community centers, despite his qualifications. But if being underemployed isn't working for you, it's important that you take steps to break out of that situation. Here are a few moves to consider.

1. Negotiate a better position with your current employer

Maybe you initially agreed to spend your days making photocopies and fielding customer service calls to get your foot in the door at an advertising agency where you can use your hard-earned marketing degree. If two years go by and you still haven't done any actual marketing work, it may be time to have a conversation with your boss. Sit down with your manager, review your skills, and talk about things you'd like to be doing. Your boss may not realize you're so glaringly underemployed until you point out additional ways you can add value.

2. Dust off your resume and seek work elsewhere

Maybe you've found a job in the right industry and are doing the type of work you ought to be doing, albeit part-time. If that's the case and your employer doesn't have more hours for you, update your resume and seek out a full-time role that gives you the hours you're looking for. Similarly, if you're doing tasks you feel are beneath your skill set and your employer won't give you the opportunity to do more, look for a new job that matches your experience and knowledge.

3. Make networking a priority

Whether you're looking for a job that will pay you more or allow you to spend your time differently, networking could be your ticket to new opportunities. Reach out to former colleagues, friends, neighbors, family members, old classmates, college professors, and anyone else you feel might know of a job that's more suitable. It also helps to attend networking events in person or online, and you can seek out events and groups that relate to your profession. If you're an IT person, for example, look for tech forums or meetups.

4. Create your own opportunities

If the job you have right now isn't the right one for you, and your efforts to find a better one have been fruitless, carve out your own role. Start a business, or go freelance so you can spend your days doing work that's meaningful and representative of your skill set. That said, this isn't a decision to jump into blindly. Before you venture out on your own, you'll need to make sure you have a healthy savings account balance. It may take some time to build up a client base and drum up business, so you'll need money to tide yourself over in the interim. Also, make sure you have an actual plan for how you'll attract clients and earn money. That plan should cover details like how you'll market your services and what you'll charge for them.

5. Create a full-time job with two part-time roles

One big problem with being underemployed is not earning enough money to keep up with your expenses. If that's the situation you're in and you can't find a way to turn your current part-time job into a full-time role, then it could pay to seek out a second part-time job. Between the two roles, you may be able to eke out enough hours to maintain an income you can live more comfortably with.

If you can't find two part-time jobs, or your situation doesn't allow for it -- say, you're working 30 hours at one job and you can't take on a second job without committing to too many hours -- try getting a side hustle on top of your main job. If that gig is something you do at your own pace (like editing web content or doing medical billing from home), even better. That way, if you are given the option to increase your hours down the line, you'll be able to maintain both income streams.

6. Seek out a part-time role with health benefits

If you're currently not working enough hours to be eligible for health benefits through your employer, then it pays to see if there's another role -- even a part-time one -- out there that gives you access to a health insurance plan. In this regard, you may be better off seeking work at a larger company than a smaller one, since you may be more likely to get benefits if you take a job at a national chain as opposed to a mom and pop shop. If you're not able to work enough hours to get health benefits, you can apply for an Affordable Care Act subsidy for a plan you purchase yourself. Subsidies are income-based, and if your earnings are limited due to the nature of the job you have right now, you may qualify for a more substantial one, which will make your healthcare more affordable.

7. Aim to stretch your income as much as you can

If being underemployed is putting you at a financial disadvantage, you'll need to be very careful with how you manage your money. Aim to keep your housing payments as low as possible, as they're probably your greatest monthly expense. Ideally, they should be kept to 30% of your income or less. (If you're a lower earner due, you may qualify for housing assistance through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.)

Also, try getting by without a car if that's doable where you live (it may not be, especially if you're located in a rural or suburban area). It's generally much cheaper to take public transportation than to pay to fuel a car, park it, insure it, and maintain it.

Finally, keep your remaining costs as low as you can. When you're on your lunch break, don't buy meals from a local restaurant or cafe -- pack them yourself instead. Instead of getting cable, try a low-cost streaming service to provide at-home entertainment. Remember, you can always upgrade your lifestyle once your employment situation changes -- and your income picks up.

Being underemployed is clearly apt to impact you financially, but it could also impact you mentally. The work you do is part of your identity, and if you're not proud of it, your self-esteem could suffer. Underemployment isn't something you have to settle for, so do what you can to bust out of that rut -- find a job you're proud to put on your resume.

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