News Column

Getting Out of the 'Underemployment' Rut

September 4, 2013

Tony Kindelspire

The underemployment rate continues to stay steady despite more jobs being added.
The underemployment rate continues to stay steady despite more jobs being added.

Although the national unemployment rate has been falling steadily for the past several months, it was still 7.4 percent in July, a long way from the roughly 5 percent most economists view as full employment.

Another figure that provides a glimpse into how things actually are in the job market is the Bureau of Labor Statistics' "underemployment" number, known as the U-6 number. This is a combined percentage of people eligible to work who are either unemployed or are working part-time because they cannot find a full-time job.

The BLS put the U-6 number at 14 percent for July. Polling firm Gallup had it even higher at 17.5 percent.

For 2012, Colorado's U-6 number was 14.6 percent, almost even with the national average of 14.7 percent. During the height of the Great Recession in 2009, Colorado's average was 13.7 percent while nationally, the average was 16.2 percent.

Alexandra Hall, chief economist with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, cautions against reading too much into that number.

"I do think you can attribute the level of U-6 to the impact of the economy," Hall said. "But we shouldn't exaggerate. I think people assume that everybody's who's working part-time is doing so only because they can't find full-time work."

Some people consider themselves underemployed because the jobs they're applying for don't match their educational level.

"I have a master's, and I'm competing with people with associate's degrees to get a job," said Megan Newman, 42, of Boulder. She has more than 20 years' experience as a counselor, including work in the Boulder Valley School District. After being laid off in 2011, she moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., where she worked for a year counseling jail inmates.

She came back because this is where her family is, she said.

"I'm unemployed in the Boulder schools because it's so competitive to get a counseling job there," Newman said. "And even the Front Range -- it's so saturated with counselors."

Through Workforce Boulder County, Newman learned about the Workforce Investment Act, which she is using to further her education.

She needs to get her state certificate, and to do that she needs to take expensive classes. To qualify for a Workforce Investment Act grant, she provided Workforce with detailed information about the pay rate, jobs outlook and advancement possibilities that would await after she received her certification.

Newman takes classes as they're available, but there's often a waiting list she said. She hopes to be finished by November. But if her unemployment insurance ends, she'll have to take any job that comes along, making it more difficult to finish her classes.

As hard as it is, her family and her roots are on the Front Range, she said, so she can't relocate. And she can't bring herself to think about changing careers.

"It's the passion, the love of people," Newman said.

In her free time, she puts time in with Skillshare, an Internet-based service that lets people trade skills by volunteering time to help other people. The program helps her network with other professionals and feeds her love of working with people, Newman said.

Tom Miller, executive director of Workforce Boulder County, said that as the federal government shortens the length of time someone can collect unemployment insurance, people feel forced to take jobs they otherwise wouldn't.

"People run out of income sooner so they have to make those decisions earlier," Miller said.

Dean Wyant considers himself underemployed but lucky to be working at Longmont's EMC Integrity.

"I'm still very fortunate compared to a lot of people," said Wyant, 55, of Longmont. "I still make two-thirds of what I made. But it's adjustment. It's an adjustment of lifestyle a little. A lot."

Wyant worked for nearly 30 years as an engineering technician at Storage Technology Corp. then Sun before being laid off.

"When I first got laid off I was relieved, because I knew it was coming," Wyant said. "It's like a ton of bricks off your shoulders. But after you're laid off for about a year and nobody's calling and nobody's responding to your emails, you start to think there's something wrong with you. You start questioning yourself."

He eventually got a job as a contractor, earning half what he had. Then he was laid off again and spent eight months out of work.

During that eight-month period, he didn't get a single job interview, he said, until EMC Integrity called him.

A former co-worker at StorageTek tipped him off to that job, Wyant said, and since being hired, he's recommended other former StorageTek employees to his boss.

"I think networking is the best way to put it," Wyant said, when asked for any advice he had. "Just start calling everyone you know and putting your name out there.

"You can't wait for a job to come to you. You have to put yourself out there, you really do."



Source: (c)2013 Daily Times-Call (Longmont, Colo.) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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