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Are you underemployed? Here's how you can improve your job prospects

SALT LAKE CITY – Berit Ensweiler always wanted to work in aviation.

Almost four years after graduating in aviation management from Purdue University, Ensweiler, 26, was unable land a job as an air traffic controller. He is now a sales associate at a UPS Store in Salt Lake City.

Surrounded by carboard boxes and packing tape in the stock room, he said he still dreams of working in aviation.

“I realize that my potential is higher than this. It’s not necessarily a good feeling but it’s paying the bills for now.”

Ann Curtis, 58, estimates she has applied for 400 jobs since graduating in Public Relations from Brigham Young University in 2011. Curtis, 58, exudes the confidence that comes with experience and maturity, and has experience ranging from business owner to news writing, public relations, social media, event planning and design.

She has bounced from job to job and interview to interview, often being told that she is overqualified or facing potential employers who assume she does not understand technology or will only work for the company for a few years because of her age.

"The minute you walk into the door, it's like there's this big caption over your head, like, 'Oh, they're old,'" she said.

Ensweiler and Curtis are two of the 8.6 million who were underemployed and 11.8 million who were mal-employed in the United States in 2011, according to a study done by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

The underemployed are those who want to work full-time job but either work part time or not at all for economic reasons, according to Andrew Sum, Professor of Economics at Northeastern University. Those who are mal-employed are those who have college degrees but work in jobs that do not require a degree.

“Both these problems have very large levels. They swamp the unemployment problem,” Sum said. “There's a very, very, very large cost associated with this.”

In Utah, 5.4 percent of those in the labor force were underemployed in 2012. This is down from 6.3 percent in 2011, an improvement, but not enough to erase the changes for all sectors in the workforce.

The two populations that are most impacted are recent college graduates and those who are nearing retirement, according to Peter Philips, professor of economics at the University of Utah. Those who are fresh out of college and are under or mal-employed face financial and career consequences that could haunt them throughout their career, while near-retirees miss opportunities to improve their careers and save for retirement.

The economic costs are seen in the lack of tax revenue, financing food stamps and welfare for the underemployed and in the loss of income over the span of a career for the mal-employed, Sum said.

Those who are younger also miss out on training and carry the consequences throughout their careers, Philips said. Like knives that need to be sharpened, young people need the training, experience and networking that will make them more marketable and effective, he said.

"Today the young un-sharpened knives that are coming into the labor force, these new people who are coming in, aren’t getting sharpened up the way young workers did get trained and prepared and integrated a decade ago,” Philips said.

Because of this, they have a harder time progressing throughout their work life.

“They’re going to be not only underemployed today but less effectively employed tomorrow, so it’s a double whammy for young people.”

While young people miss opportunities to train, older workers who are under- or mal-employed miss the opportunity to "cash in" on their experience and skills. They are older than the peak hiring ages that lie between 25 and 55, he said, so they also face a potential end to their employable years.

“Underemployed old people are really at a point where they just are hanging onto the labor market with their fingernails trying to stay underemployed because if they actually become unemployed it gets really tough to get reemployed,” Philips said.

There is no fix-all individual solution, Philips said, and there is no guarantee of success in uncertain economic times.

“When you’re caught in a tidal wave, the smart thing to do is to swim as hard as you can and swim in the right direction. But when you’re in a tidal wave, being smart and making just the right effort does not guarantee success.”

Use time wisely

Workers can mitigate their losses by using their time effectively. Time spent outside an ideal job can be used for personal development and professional growth, said William MacAskill, president of 80,000 Hours, a charity based in the United Kingdom that offers career advice and promotes altruism in career choice.

"Rather than think of being underemployed as a downer, use it as an opportunity to figure out your values, and develop a default long-term career plan. Then use that long-term plan to figure out what concrete next actions you need to take," MacAskill said.

"Take all and any work you can. Doing any sort of work often generates unexpected new opportunities. If you don't feel like you've bitten off more than you can chew, then bite again."

This is what Brigham Young University graduate Bob Ziroll did. After graduating in 2011, Ziroll did not immediately jump into the career search, opting to take a part-time job as a Zupas delivery driver and spend a year traveling.

In August 2012, he quit Zupas and moved in with his parents and planned to stay there for a month or two while he looked for jobs.

After repeatedly receiving feedback that he had not been hired because he lacked experience, Ziroll decided to change how he approached the job search.

“I just started saying, ‘You know what? I ‘m just going to make my own experience.’”

He picked up a job from his aunt designing labels for cream bottles. He had almost no experience in graphic design so he decided to charge less for his services and learned as he went.

In addition to graphic design he learned HTML, CSS, JavaScript and Ruby programming languages to increase his marketability. He also worked off and on with his family's company as needed.

He started applying for jobs with more specific job descriptions that met his skill set. He said he still has not found a full-time position, but he is better positioned than he was before.

He said he came to dread the “What do you do?" question and one of his biggest concerns was that prospective employers and others would judge him as having little drive. The longer it took for him to get a job, the worse it looked.

On April 4, he and his step-father launched EarthSafe Batteries, a company that sells technology to de-sulfate and extend the life of a battery.

He figured if he failed he would learn something and if he succeeded he would have accounting, logistics and other qualifications to add to his resume.

Don't sit still

Curtis returned to school in 2008, her 50s, after her husband lost his job, expecting to be the sole breadwinner for her family. After a public relations internship in New York, she did public relations with a company for almost eight months, but was laid off. Two brief work stints followed, and she is now unemployed and looking for work.

She has skills to offer employers that her younger counterparts do not have, she said, such as steadiness, loyalty and reliability, but she said she is often overlooked by employers.

Although discouraged at times, she said she continues finding ways to improve her skills. She is pursuing two content writing jobs, and has returned to skills she learned in her youth: sewing and fashion design. Upcoming projects include teaching sewing classes and running a children’s clothing line with one of her daughters. She hopes one of these will allow her to bring in a regular paycheck.

Ensweiler has a similar mentality. He said he is glad he learned patience from his work in retail, but is excited to get back into aviation. He is looking into a different program — airline dispatch — and will apply for jobs after completing a certification course in the fall.

"In college you learn how to use your skills that you graduate with and you get out and realize you didn't get the job you were necessarily looking for so you have to adapt," he said.

Nick Dunn, public information officer for the Department of Workforce Services, said they have employment centers throughout the state that employ counselors who specialize in different areas. They aim to help provide confidence to those looking to improve their employment situation.

"Our number one priority is to get people jobs, but also to get people better jobs that are more in line with their income needs and within their career field," he said.

They help those looking for work to find areas in which their skills can be used, and help train them to be successful in their search for work.

"In many ways our employment centers are a one-stop shop for people looking to better their employment situation."

James Emery, 49, is among those who used these resources. Not wanting to repeat the unsuccessful job hunt that followed his military retirement, he contacted the Department of Workforce Services. He had used their resources in the past, and found out about a job within the department itself. After sending in his resume, he set up an appointment with a career counselor. The two went through three one-hour mock interviews to better prepare him.

He was hired out of a pool of 300 applicants, and now works for the Department of Workforce Services as a disabled veteran's outreach coordinator. Emery said there is every opportunity for work and encourages people to utilize the services offered by his company, including help with resumes, interviewing and learning technology.

Note: The Department of Workforce Services has offices throughout Utah that offer resume, interview and career advice.

Tips to find a career

80,000 hours president William MacAskill gives advice on how to best manage a season of mal- or underemployment. 80,000 hours is a charity based in the United Kingdom that offers career advice and promotes altruism in career choice.

1) Figure out your values and shape a long-term career plan. Then create concrete steps to work toward that plan.

2) Any work is good work. Look at jobs as a way to find new opportunities.

3) Look through your network and contacts. Let people know you're looking for work and ask for advice. Reach out to acquaintances, who have been shown to be the helpful in job placement.

4) Get experience in as many areas as possible. The number of different career paths is large, and you can't know what you'll enjoy until you actually do it.

5) Apply to everything that's even a maybe. Application processes involve a lot of randomness, so roll the dice as much as possible.

6) Aim to get rejected. If you aren't getting regularly rejected, then you either aren't trying often enough, or aren't aiming high enough. Learning to be OK with rejection is an important life skill

7) Get advice.

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