The Underemployed: The New Reality of The American Job Market

How many jobs do you have? If you answered one, you could be considered lucky. First, for having a job in this anemic market and, second, if you only need one job to make ends meet.

Okay, now let me ask this question: Is the job you have now commensurate with your education/experience? If you answer yes, again you could be considered lucky.

The economic downtown and the downsizing it triggered have created a virtual epidemic of “underemployment." Underemployment can be defined a couple of ways -- having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, or working a job that is considerably below your education level or skill set. According to a recent Gallup survey, nearly 1 in 5 working Americans describe themselves as “underemployed.”

Take Janet Raiffa, for example. She was a recruiter at Goldman Sachs before leaving to become the recruiting manager at Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe -- a major law firm. In 2009, she lost her job and quickly discovered -- despite an Ivy League pedigree from Dartmouth and Columbia -- her skill set was no longer needed in the marketplace.

“It was the first time since I’d been out of college that I was looking for a job without having a job,” Raiffa says.

The money flow stopped, but the bills continued. Raiffa decided she would do anything she could – within reason – to make ends meet.  That included bird-sitting for a friend, appearing as an extra on several television shows and helping to cast a reality series. The experience took a huge toll on her psyche and self-esteem.

“I got tremendously depressed,” she said. “I had days where I couldn’t get out of bed.  It’s very hard to motivate yourself.”

Damian Birkel, of Winston-Salem N.C., found himself in similar circumstances. He was a marketing manager at Sarah Lee in the early 1990s when he was downsized. Since then, he has been laid off from three other jobs, including one at a recruiting firm.

“I felt like I had ‘loser’ tattooed to my forehead, and ‘will work for food’ tattooed to my chest,” he says.

The hardest part was telling his young daughter that there might not be enough money to pay the bills -- among them, sending her to summer camp. “She brings her piggy bank and says, 'Daddy, why don’t you break into the piggy bank so that you can pay some of the bills.'”

Birkel hears similar stories all the time. After he lost the job at Sarah Lee, he founded Professionals in Transition, a non-profit that counsels the underemployed and unemployed. He holds job search “boot camps” and meets many professionals whose once-thriving careers are now but a fading memory.

“There was a school teacher who lost her job,” he told us. “She had two jobs bagging groceries, plus taking as many other odd jobs as she could find to keep her house.”

Steven Carse of Atlanta, Ga., found himself in a similar situation. He was on what he thought was the fast track to success at insurance giant AIG.  He had been promoted twice. Then, in early 2009, he was called into the HR department.

“I was on a path for a comfortable future without having to worry too much about it,” he says. “Then the bottom just fell out.”

Carse had just bought a new condo. He quickly put that up for lease and moved onto his brother’s couch.

“The main thing when you lose your job is you feel helpless,” Carse says.

He drifted through a number of ‘survival jobs’ – even hawking cotton candy at Braves’ baseball games. He was hit by the same psychological blow that Raiffa and Birkel were. “That obviously wasn’t my goal to be selling cotton candy.  And we were all looking for something else.”

Carse found that something else. He’s now selling ice pops from a pushcart on the streets of Atlanta.

But here’s where his story takes a twist.

That pushcart is one of 12 that he owns.Carse figured it would be easier to create a job than to find one, so he started a company selling handmade gourmet ice pops. Business has been so successful that his brother Nick gave up his job as a Gwinnett County prosecutor to join the venture. Both are busier than ever.

“It’s going to have to be a slow growth -- see what works, see what doesn’t. A get rich slow scheme, you might say,” Carse says.

Financially, Carse is about back to where he was at AIG. But his ice pops business is about more than money.

“For me, it’s about building something,” he says. “The first thing you have to do is have faith in yourself.”

Janet Raiffa found that faith, too. Rather than lying on her couch feeling sorry for herself, she started blogging about her adventures in underemployment. She also volunteered at a soup kitchen. That opened her eyes. “You get a really interesting taste of how badly off people are.” And she decided to go freelance with her recruiting skills, contracting with Internet startups like HealthGuru. She also coaches Ivy League students on how to impress recruiters when looking for a job.

The money is about a quarter of the $200,000 a year she once made. She’s had to cut corners, but she is actually having fun. “I started using coupons for the first time in my life, and now I’m sort of addicted to it,” she says.

Raiffa now works a total of six jobs. But her schedule is flexible enough that it allowed her to fulfill the lifelong desire to have a baby. Her son Eli is 7 months old. “The biological clock waits for no economy to change … and this was something that I always wanted.”

Damian Birkel also found purpose out of adversity. In addition to helping people with his nonprofit, he teaches part-time at a community college -- passing on his skills and experience to the next generation. And he has high praise for the underemployed.

“If you are unemployed in America and you have taken a ‘stop-the-loss’ job, hold your head high,” he says. “You have nothing to be ashamed of.”