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How Underemployment Is Affecting The Job Market

While unemployment has hit record lows, there's another number that also gets a lot of attention — underemployment.
LM Otero
While unemployment has hit record lows, there's another number that also gets a lot of attention — underemployment.

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 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.