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How to climb out of the ranks of the underemployed

Posted August 1

Workers who proved themselves to prospective employers thought part-time or temp jobs are a reason the once lofty underemployment rate stood at 9.6 percent in June, down from 11.3 percent at the beginning of 2015. (Deseret Photo)

Jose Rodriguez was among the millions of Americans swept up in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. The machinery mechanic lost his job of 12 years when the company he worked for went out of business.

He spent six years working temporary jobs of various kinds to make ends meet for his family. “I had bills, a family to support,” he said in an interview. “I couldn’t just sit around waiting for something to happen.”

But permanent, full-time work proved elusive. Rodriguez found himself among the swollen ranks of the underemployed — those marginally attached to the labor force via temp positions or working part time for economic reasons. The U.S. Department of Labor’s broad measure of unemployed and underemployed American workers topped 17 percent by 2010, more than double the rate before the recession.

But after years of lofty underemployment, that rate is again down to a single-digit level, and Rodriguez is part of the positive momentum. The rate stood at 9.6 percent in June, down from 9.9 percent at the start of 2016 and from 11.3 percent at the beginning of 2015, as steady job gains over the past couple years have finally tightened the labor market, economists say.

“That rate has improved quite a bit and I think it will continue to improve,” said Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics, in an interview.

Rodriguez, 46, landed a temp job last year at Armstrong Flooring in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Within months, he parlayed it into a permanent position with benefits. He is a mechanical technician supporting researchers who design new products for the maker of residential and commercial flooring. Unlike in previous years, Rodriguez said, his experience amplified what the data show — that companies are reaching into the ranks of the marginally employed and cultivating the best among them into full-time staffers.

That said, Rodriguez and others say, employers are still finicky and job-hunters often must prove themselves via temp or part-time work. And important across the board are polished applications, strong references and impressive interviews. After all, the broad measure of underemployment still is a full percentage point above where it was in late 2007, before the downturn.

“You give it 100 percent and the bosses will notice now,” Rodriguez said. “But those that don’t, they still struggle.”

Advice for job-hunters

That sounds simple, but it is true, says human resources pro Michelle Labbe.

“I look at so, so, so many resumes,” said Labbe, the chief people officer at ICR Inc., a New York-based firm that provides strategic communications, investor relations and PR services to various companies. “Getting right what might seem like little things, that’s very important.”

She said that, even in a stronger job market, hiring managers typically get far more applications than they have open positions. Resumes with typos, incorrect information or sloppy writing get tossed out. Clean applications get stacked atop the pile.

The same applies to cover letters. And in both letters and interviews, applicants must sell themselves — not just their talents and credentials, but also that they know the company at which they are applying, what it does and how they could fit in. Showing keen interest by asking serious questions is another positive, she said.

In her experience, Labbe said people looking for better jobs have the best chance of success if they establish a genuine interest in the company at which they are applying. That means showing that their experiences match up for the positions they want or that they have the basic skills needed to quickly navigate a learning curve and take on the job with some training.

Having a college degree is big, she said, as U.S. jobs increasingly grow more sophisticated. The unemployment rate for those with a college degree, for example, is half of what it is for those without one, and it is a third of that for those without a high school diploma.

Still, more people without degrees like Rodriguez are making advances, and some of them are proving themselves hardworking and efficient via part-time or temp work. And others, Labbe said, stand out with their clean, well-crafted resumes and applications.

‘It’s not complicated’

What’s more, Labbe said, make sure your general presence on social media is positive, and more specifically, that your work history and credentials you list on LinkedIn and similar sites match up with your job application.

Hiring managers double-check such things, she said. And they also still check references. For one, anyone who cannot come up with three professional references is suspect, she said. Beyond that, though, potential employers want to speak with former managers to gather further evidence of an applicant's work ethic, ability to get along with co-workers and produce consistently.

“It’s not complicated, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t get considered” for jobs “because they fail to sell themselves and do the basics,” Labbe said.

Anita Kelly, another former temp worker who graduated into full-time work at Armstrong Flooring in Pennsylvania, said her personal experience supports Labbe’s advice. Employers, she said, want to see that prospective employees have common sense, that they are smart enough and diligent enough to present themselves professionally. If they do not do this, she said, they will still get passed over.

“A lot of that stuff seems obvious, but I don’t think a lot of people realize it,” Kelly said.

Mayland, the economist, said average monthly job growth this year has fallen below 200,000, a level it eclipsed over the course of 2015. But that could well prove a positive development, he said, as it could indicate that growth is slowing not because jobs are fewer but because a larger share of people who want full-time jobs now have them.

“I think that reflects that there are just fewer bodies to hire,” Mayland said.

Rodriguez, the former temp worker, said his personal experiences indicate the jobs picture is indeed brightening. “I’m pretty well off now compared to where I was a couple years ago,” he said.

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