Underemployment is seldom defined | NevadaAppeal.com

Underemployment is seldom defined

John Seelmeyer
Northern Nevada Business Weekly

When it comes to underemployment, nobody knows nothin’.

A University of Nevada, Reno, researcher says it’s high time that management experts and academics pay substantially closer attention to underemployment, particularly because the recession may mean far more people are underemployed for far longer than they were in the past.

In fact, Frances McKee-Ryan, an assistant professor of management at UNR, says that for all the recent talk about underemployment, there’s not much agreement about what it involves, let alone the size of the phenomenon.

A Gallup poll released last week, for instance, says the underemployment rate in Nevada runs somewhere between 21 and 25 percent of the workforce. The polling company lumps together the officially reported jobless rate – 13.7 percent in Nevada during January – with the number of people working less than 30 hours a week who want to be working full time to create its estimate of underemployment.

But in a paper published in “Journal of Management,” McKee-Ryan and fellow researcher Jaron Harvey of the University of Alabama note there’s no agreed-upon strategy for counting the underemployed.

Does it include people who are overqualified – either by education or experience – for the jobs they now have? What about people who lost their jobs and now are forced to work in a lower-status position? People who think they are overqualified for the jobs they hold, no matter what the reality of their skills and education?

Economists tend to count underemployment in one way, focusing on the number of hours a person works. Management specialists, meanwhile, pay more attention to the expectation of workers and their beliefs about whether their skills are adequately used.

And questions about underemployment have more than academic interest. Workers who make less than they would in jobs that fully utilize their skills spend less in stores, and the economy suffers whenever a resource such as the workforce isn’t used to its fullest. The number of underemployed workers, whatever the definition, rises as people are unemployed for longer times. With the average duration of unemployment nationwide currently running more than 37 weeks for jobless workers, that means a lot of people are turning to whatever work they can find to put bread on the table until something better comes along.

For the society as a whole, McKee-Ryan said in an interview last week, long-term and widespread underemployment begins to raise big issues. Some research hints, for instance, that workers who are underemployed for a long time begin to lower the lifetime goals they set for themselves. Some lose their faith that hard work pays off and begin to put self-interest above the organization’s goals.

Questions arise, too, about management of workers who may be underemployed. Those folks often view themselves as relatively poor performers in their current jobs. But their supervisors don’t necessarily think so, other researchers have found.

About the personal implications of underemployment – its effect on health, relationships, social relationships – almost nothing has been researched, McKee-Ryan and Harvey found.

All of this, they said, needs a lot more study.

“Underemployment has potentially detrimental effects for individual workers, organizations and our larger society, but is a relatively underresearched topic,” they conclude in their “Journal of Management’ article.