Even a Short Spell of Underemployment Can Wreck a Career

March 25, 2016, 2:23 PM UTC
Labor Market Shows Improvement In June Reports
MIAMI BEACH, FL - JULY 05: A ''Now Hiring'' sign is seen in the store front window on July 5, 2012 in Miami Beach, Florida. The ADP released the National Employment Report which showed that employment in the U.S. nonfarm private business sector increased by 176,000 from May to June on a seasonally adjusted basis.The government will release its closely watched employment report for June on Friday. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Photograph by Joe Raedle — Getty Images

The recession officially ended seven years ago. But let’s say you took a job below your education and experience, or part-time work, just to tide you over until the “jobless recovery” ended. If you’re now finding it harder than you expected to get your career back on track, you’re not the only one—particularly if you happen to be male.

That’s the conclusion of a paper published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review, which says that the effect of underemployment on a career is “incredibly negative,” notes author David Pedulla, a sociologist and research associate at the University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Center. His study found that employers respond to underemployed job applicants only half as often as to candidates working full-time at their skill levels. For men with part-time jobs, the response rate was even less than half. By contrast, part-time work had “no negative effect” on how often employers responded to women’s job applications.

Pedulla submitted 2,420 fictitious applications for 1,210 real job openings in five cities across the U.S., and then tracked employers’ responses to each one. Every hypothetical applicant had graduated from college in the same year, was around 30 years old, and listed six years of work experience at his or her skill level. The only differences among the resumes were gender and a spell of underemployment.

The results are “compelling evidence that taking a job below one’s skill level is quite penalizing, regardless of one’s gender,” Pedulla says, adding that “part-time work severely hurts the job prospects of men.”

To find out why, he surveyed 903 hiring managers on how they saw each type of applicant, and how likely they would be to consider him or her for an interview. The employers said they viewed men employed below their qualifications as both “less competent” and “less committed” than applicants who had never been underemployed. Oddly, the managers saw women with the same employment histories as their male counterparts as less competent, but no less committed.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of the number of people who are working part-time because they can’t get hired full-time, and Pedulla’s findings go a long way toward explaining why that figure has been stubbornly stuck at about 6 million since last November.

The study also suggests that, the next time the economy takes a big enough nosedive to cause widespread layoffs, anyone who has to take a step down to make ends meet should avoid part-time work and sign on with a temporary-staffing agency instead. The reason: A history of temporary or contract gigs was the only type of experience Pedulla studied that virtually all prospective employers accepted, for men and women alike, as equal to a full-time job.

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