Fresh out of graduate school, my first job was as a social worker at a nonprofit where everyone had multiple roles and was generally underpaid and overworked. But I loved it. I was working with a refugee population, and every day I felt like I'd made a small contribution toward bettering my community. However, I was dealing with the serious effects of underemployment.
I thought I was okay with the salary and I tried to ignore the fact that my paychecks were often less than my previous job as a waitress. Several months in, I started to lose sleep. I chalked it up to stress and told myself it was just a part of the job.
But before I get into how I learned personally about the effects of underemployment, let me explain the difference between unemployment and underemployment.
Clarifying the difference between unemployment and underemployment
There is a difference between unemployment and underemployment. Unemployment is when you do not have a job at all and are searching for work. A major reason someone will remain unemployed is the status of the nation's economy.
For instance, unemployment tends to rise during recessions due to companies trying to cut costs from the lack of demand for goods and services. This results in job cuts if you don't have a recession-proof job.
However, underemployment is another major problem. Underemployment is common in the following three categories:
1. Skilled workers in low-paying positions
One of the most common effects of underemployment is when skilled workers have to take lower-paying jobs. The reason is that their skills are low in demand. So, rather than becoming fully unemployed, the worker is forced into a lower-paying position instead.
2. Skilled workers working jobs that don't utilize their skills
Let's say you have a degree in your field but have to take another type of work because you can't find a position in your field. For instance, if you have a degree in Business Management but are working as a clerk. This is a prime example of not being able to use your full potential!
3. Working part-time despite wanting full-time work
Another example of underemployment is working part-time jobs because you can't get full-time work in your position. Similar to having to take low-paying positions, workers find themselves in part-time roles rather than being utilized for their skills in a full-time position.
Despite the differences between unemployment and underemployment they both cause financial turmoil.
Types of underemployment
Depending on what category a worker is in will determine the type of underemployment they are dealing with. The two types of underemployment are known as "visible" and "invisible".
When workers are forced to work fewer hours than what is normal in their line of work is known as visible underemployment. This is because they possess the skills and desire to work full-time but cannot find a full-time position. This type of underemployment is measurable.
This is where the skilled workers are working positions that don't fully utilize the employee's skills and potential. Again, working as a clerk vs. as a manager despite your skillset and abilities. However, unlike visible underemployment, this is much harder to measure because it requires extensive research.
The effects of underemployment: 3 lessons I learned
Now that you know the difference between unemployment and underemployment and the types of underemployment, let me tell you what I learned from dealing with it personally.
1. Getting a better job can tackle the effects of underemployment
Time went on, and for nearly a year during the effects of underemployment were wearing on me. I was suffering from severe insomnia, sleeping only 4 or fewer hours on weeknights. I tried melatonin, yoga, mindfulness, and finally, a prescription-strength sleeping aid.
So when a friend-of-a-friend told me about a research-based social work position opening up at a larger institution known for great benefits and time off, I couldn't apply fast enough. Guess what?! I got that cushy job at that fancy institution. And it paid bank for what a social worker in my area typically makes: $50K.
I was through the roof and excited to start a new position. Then, finally, my sleep began to regulate, and my stress level was much lower than they were at my previous job.
2. Not everyone will be happy that you are no longer underemployed
From a fulfillment standpoint, I continued to feel great about the work I was doing. I was spreading knowledge and problem-solving toward better mental health access in the state. A couple of weeks into my new position, I started hearing things at my meet-and-greets with various people and departments about my salary.
Since I worked at a public institution, everyone's wages were public and searchable. In fact, a few people asked me what my salary was, and I answered honestly.
One day, a colleague stopped me after a meeting and said, "Hey, I just wanted you to know that I didn’t sign the thing that’s going around. Sorry, that's happening." I played it off like I knew what she was talking about but had no clue what she meant. Slowly, I was able to piece together what happened.
My starting salary was higher than a lot of the other social workers. So there was a petition going around the entire institution (we are talking tens of thousands of employees) with my full name, salary, and a paragraph about why I was making too much money! I asked my supervisor about it, and when my supervisor confirmed the petition's existence, my heart sank into my stomach.
3. Don't feel guilty for getting paid what you are worth
According to the petition, I didn't have enough experience. Other people were making less; my licensure was new, etc. I kept telling myself I was “not worth $50k.” My head spun on my drive home. Was I earning too much? Should I have questioned my starting salary? Or worse, did people think I was greedy?
After I went back and cried a mix of tears of anger and embarrassment, I tried to brush it off. I told myself I was lucky to be in the position making the salary I made. If this is what I had to deal with, it didn't matter. So I went back to work like nothing had happened and stayed at that institution for years.
What do I wish I'd done? I wish I'd had the capacity and confidence to set up a meeting with whoever started that petition. I should have scheduled a meeting with the head of the department.
The approach was wrong. They listed the reasons why I shouldn't make the money I was making. But as social workers, they should have used my salary to highlight the economic injustices that social workers are faced with. They should have advocated for better pay for themselves and the workers in their field. Especially given the effects of underemployment.
They should have used my salary to say, "Hey, this is a livable wage. If she can get that as a starting salary, there is no reason that we can't demand better wages." Not just living wages, but wages that compensate them for the type of emotionally draining work expected of them. Finding better underemployment solutions is the key to keep from being underpaid!
Other effects of underemployment people experience
Unfortunately, underemployment in the workforce is a common problem. The effects of underemployment not only cause workers to be underpaid, but it can also cause poor mental health. Working a job that isn't paying enough causes financial hardship, which results in stress and anxiety.
It also can increase poverty because people are unable to purchase goods and services as they would otherwise because they aren't making enough income.
The effects of underemployment on women
After dealing with various types of underemployment, I now realize how common it is. In fact, women make up 83% of the workforce in social work. Not to mention, most of these jobs require Master's Degrees.
So, in addition to earning low salaries, many of us are also alongside our fellow Americans who are deep in student debt. By default, we are systematically saying it's okay for us to earn less for our hard work. We need to apply underemployment solutions to do what we do best for others, for ourselves, advocate, and demand change.
Take action against underemployment
If you identify as female or work in a helping profession, I urge you to talk about how much money you make. Ensure equal compensation for the work you do in your field. Set up an annual meeting to discuss pay raises.
There are plenty of fantastic articles and videos that help women find the language they need to get paid what they deserve. You are worth it, and I wish I worked to tackle the effects of underemployment sooner.