Know Your Worth: Breaking Out of the Cycle of Underemployment

Underemployment is when you don't work full time (and want to) or your job doesn't maximize your skills. Here's what to do if you're underemployed.

portrait of Nikki Carter
by Nikki Carter

Published September 15, 2022

Edited by Giselle M. Cancio
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Know Your Worth: Breaking Out of the Cycle of Underemployment
Image Credit: Eugenio Marongiu / Image Source / Getty Image


Information about job searching often focuses on preparing for and landing a job. What if you find yourself in a situation where you are gainfully employed, but you know that you either need to work more hours or feel equipped to take on more challenging work? If this sounds familiar to you, you may be underemployed.

Though it's somewhat tricky to measure, as of May 2020, the U.S. underemployment rate was 22.8%, according to AP News. Underemployment can happen for various reasons, including gender and other biases, lack of upward mobility within workplaces, or a surplus of workers in a certain industry.

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Ready to start your journey?

What is Underemployment?

Underemployment happens when someone does not work a full-time schedule. Or, it happens when they work a job that either does not fully financially support them, or fails to fully use their education and skills.

For example, if you have an advanced degree in a STEM field but are working as a fitness instructor, you would technically be underemployed —even if you're doing so by choice.

Types of Underemployment

The two main types of underemployment are visible and invisible.

Visible underemployment is when someone works a part-time schedule but has the desire and ability to work full time. Someone may accept a reduced workload to generate income as they continue to look for full-time employment. In this situation, they would be visibly underemployed.

Invisible underemployment is when someone works a job that doesn't use their skills. The example we gave about a fitness instructor would be invisible underemployment, as you'd have no idea that your fitness instructor is actually trained in advanced physics.

Signs You're Underemployed

Ginny Cheng, a career coach for Career Contessa, points out that some people may purposely choose to be underemployed or may not realize they are.

According to Cheng, here are some common signs you're underemployed:

Marcia Dickerson, Ph.D., management professor at Louisiana Tech University and Independent Consultant, points out that it's important to distinguish between underemployment and working in a job your company hasn't properly organized.

"I've worked jobs where I completed my work quickly and without challenge, but if my manager had done a better job of delegating or giving me some autonomy, I would have been really pleased with the work I was given," she explained.

Escaping Underemployment

If you're underemployed, Dr. Dickerson recommends first exploring whether your issue stems from the job itself or the organization. Calling back to her personal example, could you be satisfied if your job was better structured?

"Career changes are more common today as people learn and grow, and particularly as their priorities change."

If the answer is affirmative, it may be time to discuss with your manager whether you can take on more responsibilities or lead a project. However, Cheng emphasizes that even if you accept more work or increase your task load, this may not necessarily level you up or change your pay rate. "That would be a longer conversation or may happen after you've demonstrated your abilities," she said.

If it turns out the job itself is the issue, Dr. Dickerson suggests it's time to kick up your job search again or even consider a career change. Investigate whether your company has resources to help you with personal development and prepare you for a new position or increased responsibility.

"If they don't have these services, there are external resources like assessments and career coaches who can help you learn what type of job is the best fit for you," Dr. Dickerson said. "Career changes are more common today as people learn and grow, and particularly as their priorities change."

You should also take the time to strategize about how to start networking. Talking to people who have the roles you want, or perhaps have been in the same underemployment situation you're in, can shine a light on what steps you need to take next.

And what if you're a part-time worker who wants more hours, and that's the cause of your underemployment? Cheng urges people in this situation to ask for more hours. If they aren't available, consider adding another part-time role to your schedule to gain more skills or experience that may help you in the future.

Frequently Asked Questions About Underemployment

What is chronic underemployment? true

Chronic underemployment refers to a situation in which a person consistently works fewer hours than they desire, remains stagnant in a role that doesn't fully financially support them, or is in a role that doesn't fully use their education and skills.

What are some factors that influence underemployment? true

Underemployment can be caused by many factors, including:

  • An economic recession that causes fewer jobs, hiring freezes, and other events that impact the job market
  • A surplus of skilled workers in a certain industry or geographic area, resulting in decreased demand for employees or a reduction in the workforce
  • Gender and other biases and discrimination leading to fewer people of certain demographic groups in positions
  • Automation of job duties, resulting in layoffs and less need for workers
Is underemployment better than unemployment? true

The answer depends on an individual's specific situation. Some might say underemployment is better because a person can be underemployed by choice — for example, if they're working part time so they have time to pursue a hobby — while unemployment means people want jobs but can't find them.

Underemployed people are also drawing some income, while those who are unemployed typically are not (with the exception of those receiving unemployment compensation). However, unemployed people may be in a better position to dedicate their time toward finding roles that maximize their skills and training. Those who are underemployed may be busy with their current jobs.

With Advice From

Ginny Cueng is a career and leadership coach with Career Contessa and has supported hundreds of professionals' career journeys and pivots. She is also a global head of talent leader and marketing communications strategist with 15+ years of experience designing and executing tech, biz, and sales hiring, university recruiting, talent marketing and M&A recruiting processes, as well as branding/product marketing through storytelling and events. She has experience building and managing teams from 10-75. She is an advocate of equal pay and intentional DEI programs at work.

Marcia Simmering Dickerson, Ph.D., is an award-winning educator and researcher with over 20 years of experience in people development. She is currently the Francis R. Mangham professor of management at Louisiana Tech University, where she has been a faculty member since 2003. She holds a B.B.A. in human resource management from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. in management from Michigan State University. She has the SHRM-SCP and SPHR certifications, and is a certified executive business coach.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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