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Breaking the cycle of underemployment: A guide for students and graduates

College graduation
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Underemployment refers to a person working less than full time or at a job for which they are overqualified. There’s no one way to measure overqualification; workers may be too skilled for their current position, or perhaps have more education than the job demands.

Underemployment is pervasive — data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that 33.9 percent of all college graduates are currently underemployed, while 41.3 percent of recent graduates (graduates under the age of 28) are underemployed. Often, underemployment means underpayment, making it harder to build wealth and pay off student loans.

Avoiding underemployment: Steps for students

If you’re currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree or higher, there are plenty of on-campus and online resources to bring more skills to your portfolio and help you avoid underemployment after you graduate:

  1. Speak with guidance counselors: Your guidance counselor can provide a list of electives to help you gain some experience in one or more of your desired skills. They may even be able to help you identify a career path for life after graduation and suggest resources that could help you prepare.
  2. Apply for internships: Internships are a tried-and-true way to gain ideal skills for employment. Before you accept an internship, make sure that you have the opportunity to earn the skills you want and that you can afford it. While internships can improve your future employment opportunities, many are also unpaid.
  3. Do independent research: Your on-campus library offers access to a wide variety of physical and digital materials that help you develop new skill sets. Students at certain colleges may be eligible for a free or discounted subscription to a variety of online learning sites, such as LinkedIn Learning, Coursera or Udemy.
  4. Curate your online presence: Before you start applying for jobs, take some time to carefully craft your online presence. Build and maintain a LinkedIn profile to show off any work you’re doing or share musings related to business or your industry, and set any personal Facebook or Instagram accounts to private so potential employers cannot see them. You can use privacy tools to see what visitors will see when they come to your page to gauge what’s really available to the public eye.

Escaping underemployment: Steps for graduates and workers

Sometimes underemployment can be voluntary — for instance, you may choose to take part-time work to have more time for family or other personal matters — but it’s often involuntary for both experienced and new workers. If you’re looking to move out of underemployment, start here:

  1. Up your networking game. Without school, you might not have the same resources available to you. However, you can keep in touch with old professors that have ties in the same business sector as the one you’re trying to break into. Remember to regularly post on LinkedIn or similar sites to show that you’re still active. Look for relevant connections there to see if your goals align with the needs of potential employers.
  2. Refresh your credentials. If you graduated a while ago, consider volunteering to stay current in your industry. If you’re one to two years out from graduation, you might also still qualify for internships. Find the ones that give you the most potential job growth and make sure to keep in touch with direct supervisors. They can serve as references later on.
  3. Get certified. Use sites like LinkedIn, Coursera, Udemy and others to continue your education after college. Most courses are self-directed and allow you to get a certification after you’ve completed the course. Put these certifications on your resume to boost your expertise.

Tips for finding the right job after graduation

Underemployment is a stark reality in today’s job market, one that a number of Americans have to face. The good news is that you have more ways than ever to break the cycle and find appropriate employment. These can include online courses, personal networks and more traditional methods like internships and electives.

Your major could matter less than your ability to develop and market a practical mix of skills, including both technical and social skills. Once you’ve developed those, you’ll be better able to avoid or escape underemployment and go on to have a successful career.

To find the right job after graduation, dedicate some time every week to searching LinkedIn, Indeed or ZipRecruiter for jobs that match your skills and interests. When you’re ready to apply, ensure that your cover letter and resume are tailored to the job you’re looking for and free of errors — it’s always wise to have a friend or family member proofread your application materials. Your local library can also help you find resources to create a cover letter, find job opportunities and access job boards.

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Written by
Dori Zinn
Contributing writer
Dori Zinn has been a personal finance journalist for more than a decade. Aside from her work for Bankrate, her bylines have appeared on CNET, Yahoo Finance, MSN Money, Wirecutter, Quartz, Inc. and more. She loves helping people learn about money, specializing in topics like investing, real estate, borrowing money and financial literacy.
Edited by
Student loans editor