Signs You're Underemployed and How To Handle It

Woman bored at work
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The definitions for unemployed and employed are fairly straightforward. If you're unemployed, you don't have a job (and want one), while being employed means you do. Underemployment, however, is a bit more complex and different from being unemployed.

Key Takeaways

  • When you’re underemployed, you’re working below your capacity, which could mean working fewer hours or in a role that doesn’t take full advantage of your skills and experience. 
  • There are several signs that you’re underemployed, including making much less money than expected, being bored, or working fewer hours. 
  • There are a variety of options to consider to improve your employability.
  • Persistence is key. Remember, all you need is one job that's a just-right fit to transition away from being underemployed.

What It Means To Be Underemployed 

When you're underemployed, you're working below your capacity—that could mean fewer hours than you'd like, or a job that doesn't take advantage of all your skills, experience, and education.

For an employee, it's not a very favorable spot to be in. Being underemployed cannot mean only making lower wages, but also doing a job you find dull or unfulfilling. 

It's hard to know precisely how many people are underemployed. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which diligently keeps stats on other job-related matters, doesn't track it. According to one estimate, though, as many as four in 10 part-time workers may be underemployed.

If you're underemployed yourself, you may have a sense of your situation. But sometimes, it's not always readily apparent.

Here are some of the common tip-offs that a person is underemployed—and strategies to help you achieve the employment status you want. 

You're Making A Lot Less Money Than You Expected

Some roles simply don’t pay well, but do some research. If the job title you have typically earns a higher wage where you live, something’s gone awry. 

The Fix

Take a look at websites that track salaries and offer salary calculators, such as Salary and Glassdoor, to get a sense of what you should expect to be paid. 

If you find that your salary is below the market rate, speak up. An annual review is the perfect opportunity. Also, consider applying for roles that deliver the salary you'd expect. 

Your Qualifications Are Higher Than the Role Requires

If a job calls for a high school diploma, but you've already completed graduate school, then you're likely underemployed. 

Of course, it's worth keeping in mind that sometimes people's values or priorities shift. For instance, a person may attend law school only to realize that they dislike practicing law and would prefer to walk dogs. That person might look underemployed on paper, but they may not feel that way.

If you have skills you'd like to be using on the job, but haven’t been provided opportunities to showcase your spreadsheet mastery, team-building abilities, or any other skill, you're likely underemployed.

The Fix

This is a moment for you to check in with yourself. Are you happy at this role, despite technically having qualifications that would allow you to work elsewhere? If so, there's nothing to fix. 

But if you're feeling unfulfilled and have a sense that your talents—and student loans—are being wasted, look for jobs that are a better match to your qualifications. Depending on the job market, this can be a challenging task.

Aim to do one to two tasks relating to your job search each day, such as: 

Take the time to personalize your cover letter for every role, since that can make a big difference in how hiring managers view it. 

It's also worth looking for opportunities to use your skills in your current role. If you're a marketing major working on the floor in a retail position, for example, you can approach your supervisor to ask if they're interested in you sharing strategies to help bring in more customers. 

You're Bored

If you find yourself frequently looking at the clock only to discover very little time has passed since the last time you snuck a peek and generally feel bored by your job, it's a sign you might be craving a role that's more challenging and engaging. 

The worst part about feeling unmotivated and unfulfilled at work is that it can sap your energy, preventing you from taking steps that can lead to a job that's a better fit. 

Of course, everyone gets bored at work sometimes. There's a reason the term "Sunday scaries" is so popular—many people don't look forward to going to work. But if you truly dread going to work, or find the days are always long and always tedious, that's a sign the role is truly not a good fit. 

The Fix

In some cases, there might be more engaging responsibilities available at your current company. You may just need to raise your hand and let supervisors know you're eager for more challenges and responsibility. It's also possible that there simply isn't more to do in this role, in which case, it's time to look for something new. 

If you're stumped about where to start, consider setting up informational interviews with people who work in industries or roles that you think might be a better match for your interests. 

You Don't Get Enough Hours

If you're an hourly employee, the math is simple: the more hours you work, the more money you’ll make. Employers may restrict hours for many reasons, including not wanting to provide employees with benefits or not having enough work. 

In this situation, you might find that you have to work multiple part-time jobs and deal with a hectic schedule in order to work enough hours to pay your bills. 

The Fix

First, confirm whether more hours are available at your job. As the saying goes, "If you don't ask, you don't get." It's always possible your employer simply didn't know you wanted to work more hours and is happy to put you on the schedule for extra shifts. 

If there aren't more hours available at your job, start the hunt for a role that offers you the hours you want or need.

More Ways To Handle Underemployment 

Very often, being underemployed is a circumstance that's beyond your control. The labor market may be tight. You may have a highly specialized skill that isn't in high demand. Or you may be stuck having to have multiple part-time jobs with no full-time offers available. 

Any of these scenarios would be deeply frustrating. Without being glib or claiming that it's easy to move from underemployment to employment, here are some tactics to try: 

Speak up at work. If your manager doesn't know you're looking to do more, whether that means taking on more hours or more responsibilities, make sure to raise your hand and let them know. This could potentially lead to opportunities. 

Network. There's no benefit to staying silent about wanting a different job that's a better match for your skills. Let the people in your life know what you're looking for in your next role. That means mentioning it during small talk after religious services or when you run into someone walking home from the grocery store. Networking doesn't have to be intimidating. 

Attend job fairs, networking events, conferences, and so on to connect with people in the field where you want to work. Informational interviews can also be a great way to build up connections. 

Keep applying. Being underemployed can be deeply discouraging. After long periods of time in a job that isn't fulfilling or doesn't fully meet your financial needs, it may start to feel like this job is your only option.