Culture and work final paper underemployed workers


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This is my final paper for the O&L 728 Culture and Work course that I just took with Dr. Ellen Herda for the O&L Ed.D. program.

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Culture and work final paper underemployed workers

  1. 1. Underemployed Workers in America: Underutilized, Underpaid, and Unhappy Kimberly Renee Knowles O&L 728 Culture & Work (Doctoral) May 6, 2011
  2. 2. As the United States’ economy has declined over the past few years, journalists,economists and laypeople have paid much attention to the approximately 10% of Americans whoare unemployed – looking for work and collecting unemployment checks from the governmentfor varying lengths of time in order to keep their finances afloat. Less talked about areunderemployed workers who do have jobs but are not being utilized to their full capacity. AsFeldman (1996:385) points out “…politicians and the popular press have made a lowunemployment rate the symbol of wellbeing for American families. Largely ignored have beenthe economic and emotional problems of those who are underemployed in jobs requiringsignificantly less education and work experience than they possess, often in positions offeringmuch lower wages, few benefits, fewer working hours, and less job security than in their lastjobs.” In this paper, I will discuss who these underemployed workers are, howunderemployment influences their lives, and how we can ameliorate their situation and helpAmericans to find work that utilizes them to their full capacity. Who Are Underemployed Workers? According to Gallup, underemployed workers are defined as part-time workers wantingfull-time work (Jacobe 2011). But that does not capture the full spectrum of underemployedworkers. Underemployed workers come from all segments of the population. One key group ofunderemployed workers are college students who graduate with mountains of student loan debtand are unable to find work in their field, ending up working jobs that they could have obtainedstraight out of high school – at call centers, retail shops, restaurants, and other low-paying areasof the workforce. John Stossel (2009) featured the plight of these debt-encumberedundergraduates in an ABC 20/20 segment entitled, “Is College Worth It?” Another group of underemployed workers are people who find that the field in which 2
  3. 3. they established themselves has been outsourced (e.g. information technology workers) or hasexperienced significant setbacks due to the recent financial collapse (e.g. hedge fund managers,home loan processors). These workers are initially confident that they will be able to findsimilar work when they are laid off, but eventually take positions offering lower status and lowerpay when their unemployment checks run out (Vargas 2009). Blinder (quoted in Crawford2009:34) warns about these type of industry implosions occurring with increasingly frequency,noting “millions of white-collar workers who thought their jobs were immune to foreigncompetition suddenly find that the game has changed –and not to their liking.” Women re-entering the workforce after raising children can also find themselvesunderemployed upon their return. As featured on The Today Show (Couric 2004), “ComebackMoms” find that employers are hesitant to hire them for positions at their previous level if theyhave large employment gaps on their resume. Employers also perceive the industry has changedsince these women left it and therefore believe that they are no longer sufficiently prepared towork alongside their former colleagues. Re-entry women often end up underemployed in low-level administrative positions or entry-level retail positions trying to re-establish their workhistory and build back towards positions that fully utilize their skills. According to Feldman (1996), there are five dimensions of underemployment that moreexhaustively define this segment of the workforce. First, an underemployed worker may possessmore higher-level work skills and more extensive work experience than the job requires.Second, an underemployed worker may possess more formal education than the job requires.Third, an underemployed worker may be involuntarily employed in an area outside of theirformal education. Fourth, an underemployed worker may be involuntarily engaged in part-time,temporary, or seasonal work. Finally, an underemployed worker may earn 20% less than in their 3
  4. 4. previous job or 20% less than their graduating cohort in their same track. Each of the profiles ofunderemployed workers that I have described fits at least one of these five dimensions – oftenmore than one. Other underemployed workers who fit these five dimensions include middle-agedworkers forced to take low-level retail jobs because they were forced into early retirement beforethey were financially or emotionally ready for it. Also, immigrants to America from othercountries in fields requiring licensing such as the medical profession can find it difficult to utilizeeducation and work experience from their home country to find employment in their fields.Now that I have described in more detail who underemployed workers are, I will discuss howunderemployment influences their lives. How Does Underemployment Influence People’s Lives? Underemployment has far-reaching consequences for workers and their families.According to Feldman (1996:391), underemployment has a negative influence on worker’s jobsatisfaction, job performance, future career trajectory, marital, family & social relationships andtheir overall psychological well-being. Workers in low paying, dead end jobs do not have theopportunity to contribute their full interests and abilities to the global economy. Being underemployed can have a tremendously negative influence on one’s confidenceand self-esteem – making it challenging to summon up the motivation and enthusiasm to searchfor more appropriate positions (Feldman 1996). One underemployed college graduate inStossel’s (2009) special referenced that he “feels like a loser” working in a call center afterspending thousands of dollars to earn both an undergraduate and graduate degree. The hedgefund manager turned pizza delivery man in Vargas’s (2009) special discussed a full progressiondownward of his ego as he came to grips with not being able to find a job in his field or even as a 4
  5. 5. bartender until he was willing to do whatever it took to put food on the table for his family. Re-entry women also experience feel a loss of identity as they go from being in charge of theirfamilies, mom circles, and volunteer groups to starting back at the bottom of their newemployment environment and having to work their way up (Couric 2004). As Feldman (1996) mentioned, being underemployed negatively influences familyrelationships as well. The former hedge fund manager and his wife in Vargas’s (2009) specialreferenced his underemployment making it difficult to maintain the strength of their relationshipas they negotiate which bills need to get paid the most and maintain a positive attitude for theirchildren. Underemployment can strain new graduates’ relationships with their parents as manyare forced to move back in with their mom and dad because they can’t afford to pay rent to liveon their own (Stossel 2009). Finally, as Feldman (1996) outlined, being underemployed can negatively influenceworkers’ future career trajectory. This consequence of underemployment is particularlydamaging for recent college graduates because they miss the opportunity to establish theircareers at a critical point. In a conversation about underemployed workers, Ellen Kelly Daley(March 2011) from USF Career Services estimated that college graduates are given a window ofapproximately 1-2 years after graduation to launch themselves into their chosen career. Afterthat, employers are much less willing to “take a risk” and hire them for the work that they havebeen trained to do. Without obtaining new certifications or degrees, recent college graduates find themselvespermanently “locked out” of their intended occupations. Unfortunately, low-paying jobs make itimpossible for graduates to pay back the loans that they have accumulated let alone pay for newtraining to seek employment in different fields. One of the graduates interviewed in Stossel’s 5
  6. 6. (2009) feature said that if she could do the whole thing over again, she would have spent hermoney on trade school for hairdressing (which presumably she now cannot afford) because itwould have allowed her to do work that she enjoys and that pays well. Now that I have outlinedwhom underemployed workers are and how underemployment negatively influences their lives. Iwill discuss how we can use hermeneutic concepts and an interpretive paradigm along withrealistic vocational advice to address the problem of underemployment in American and helpworkers gain full employment. How Can We Assist Underemployed Workers to Begin Anew? In order to help underemployed workers imagine a new future, we must first help them tore-remember their past. Underemployed workers need to forgive themselves for whatever rolethey personally played in creating their current situation. For example, many underemployedcollege graduates regret their decision to enter college and accumulate debt in the first place(Stossel 2009). The hedge fund manager turned pizza delivery man likely regrets buying a largehouse and living an extravagant lifestyle before being laid off – if he hadn’t done that he wouldnot have needed to return to work so quickly in order to support his family (Vargas 2009).Underemployed workers also need to forgive their former employers, universities, society, andothers who helped to get them into their predicament. The point is not to forget that those things ever happened but to re-remember them in anew way, to extract whatever learning is possible from the experience and begin again. AsRicoeur (2004:504) said, paraphrasing Mark Augé from Les Formes de l’oubli, “To embrace thefuture, one must forget the past in a gesture of inauguration, beginning and rebeginning, as inrituals of initiation.” Underemployed workers need to absorb themselves in the blessings presentin the world around them until the work of memory and the work of mourning fades away to 6
  7. 7. become effortless. As Ricoeur (2004:505) puts it, “What ‘godly diversion’ as Kierkegaard callsforgetting the worry to distinguish it from ordinary distractions, would be capable of bringingman to consider: how glorious it is to be a human being?...Carefree memory on the horizon ofconcerned memory, the soul common to memory that forgets and does not forget.” In order tohelp workers re-remember the past and imagine a new future, hermeneutics offers us severaltools. The Power of Narrative By encouraging underemployed workers to tell their stories, we can assist them to re-remember and reformulate their lives. As Herda (1997:37) describes, “Stories allow us tomediate the past and the future to the present, to bring into one plot many inconsistencies in ourlives.” Durrance (in Herda 1997:37) adds, “Stories help people bring the best of themselves totheir jobs.” By inviting workers to share their stories with us, we help them to emplot the sadstate of events that have experienced and self-author their life story in a new way. Viewing theirlives in a narrative form helps workers to reflect on what they have brought with them from thepast (Mimesis1) and what they would like for their future (Mimesis3). As Herda (1999:77) putsit, “We reflect and distance ourselves from our prejudices and pre-understandings. Although webelong to history, we also can distance ourselves from it when it is in narrative form.” This concept of narrative and mimesis was somewhat evident in Stossel’s (2009)documentary as he invited the recent graduates that he featured to share their narratives with him.As mentioned previously, one of the girls in the story reflected on her decision to enter collegeand discussed her newfound understanding that entering trade school for hairdressing wouldprovide her with more marketable skills. By inviting an underemployed worker to share theirstory with us, we provide an opening for positive change. Herda (1999:72) advocates highlights 7
  8. 8. the power of inviting someone to share their narrative with you, stating, “A conversation is anevent during which several things take place: we evaluate ourselves and others, we tell and retellour story, we see the past, and we pose possibilities for the future.” As a complement toconversations and narratives, fiction and artistic pursuits can provide inspiration as well. The Power of Fiction and Artistic Pursuits In addition to encouraging underemployed workers to share their stories with others, weshould encourage them to read fiction and engage in artistic pursuits. This will help inspire themto self-author their lives and imagine new possibilities. Underemployed workers should setaside time to read novels about self, identity, and purpose and watch movies – a diet of solelyself-help books is not a good idea. As Kearney (2004:171) puts it, “…the more we learn aboutemplotment in fiction, the more we learn to plot our own lives (that is how to combine andconfigure the various elements of our temporarily and identity).” As underemployed workersopen themselves to fictional narratives, they will find the inspiration and confidence needed toenvision their dream (Mimesis3) and take steps to realize it (Mimesis2). Ricoeur (1981:296)asserts, “…by its mimetic intention, the world of fiction leads us to the heart of the real world ofaction.” We should encourage underemployed workers not just to read and watch fiction createdby others but also to engage in artistic pursuits themselves – i.e. dance, painting, music – theseactivities help to unleash the power of imagination. As Kearney (quoted in Palmo 2010:142-3)claims, “art is, ‘an open-access laboratory of imaginative exploration.’” When Palmointerviewed activists leading communities in creation of art narratives, she found that bothparticipants and their leaders found the artistic process to be extremely powerful in enablingparticipants to learn and grow and view their lives and communities in new ways. As one of her 8
  9. 9. participants, Joseph, stated, “…it was so amazing that you just create a platform, a platform tokind of trigger and at the end of the day it would be the power of art doing this. It’s not thepower of lecture” (Palmo 2010:141). In addition to utilizing the power of narrative and thepower of artistic pursuits to assist already underemployed workers to begin anew, we need togive younger generations realistic vocational advice in order to prevent them from becomingunderemployed in the first place. Realistic Vocational Advice Although college can be a beneficial adventure and growth experience for many students,it is not for everyone. It is expensive and as seen in Stossel’s (2009) report, it does not lead tosuccessful job results for every student. According to Crawford (2009:53), students shouldexplore working in the trades. He says, “…if you are attracted to the most difficult books out ofan urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college…but if this isnot the case…the good news is you don’t have to go through the motions and jump through thehoops for the sake of making a decent living.” The third participant interviewed in Stossel’s(2009) special would agree with that assessment. Instead of going to college, he went throughapprenticeship to become a car repairman and is making steady money in an industry thatactually added jobs in the economic downturn. Overall, we must avoid automatically telling allhigh school graduates to go to college to “get a good job” and encourage them to consider“rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable (Crawford 2009:53).” Work That Engages One’s Full Capacities Through re-remembering through narratives, fiction, and artistic pursuits, we encourageunderemployed workers to begin again – to connect their take for granted world (Mimesis1) withthe new world that they want to live in (Mimesis3) and see themselves in new and different 9
  10. 10. capacities (Herda 1999:77). We can empower them open up “the kingdom of the as if” Ricoeur1984:64). We can support them to “renew and reconfigure themselves” through autopoeisis(Herda 1997:35). And, we can inspire them to utilize imagination. As Kearney (2004:175)wrote, “Thinking poetically, acting poetically, dwelling poetically are all modalities of imaginingpoetically. They are ways of realizing the fundamental possibilities of who we are. For as EmilyDickinson wrote, ‘possibility is the fuse lit by the spark of imagination.” Finally, through theseefforts above and realistic vocational advice given to young people, we can help all Americanworkers achieve Crawford’s (2009:87) vision of “work that engages the human capacities asfully as possible. 10
  11. 11. ReferencesCouric, Katie 2004 Moms Moving Back Into the Workforce. Today Show. NBC, October 21.Crawford, Matthew 2009 Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. New York: The Penguin Press.Feldman, Daniel 1996 The Nature, Antecedents, and Consequences of Underemployment. Journal of Management 22:385-407.Herda, Ellen 1997 Global Economic Convergence and Emerging Forms of Social Organization. Paper presented at the World Multiconference on Systemic, Cybernetics and Informatics, Venezuela, July 7-11. 1999 Research Conversations and Narrative: A Critical Hermeneutic Orientation in Participatory Inquiry. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.Jacobe, Dennis 2011 Gallup finds U.S. Unemployment at 10.2% in Mid-March. Gallup. Electronic Document, March.aspx, accessed April 28, 2011.Kearney, Richard 2004 On Paul Ricoeur: The Owl of Minerva. England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.Palmo, Maria 2010 The Artistic Process in Community Development: Disclosing Cultural Narrative and Identity Through Art Practices in Uganda. Ph.D. dissertation, School of Education, The University of San Francisco.Ricoeur, Paul 1981 Hermeneutics and the human sciences: Essays on language, action and interpretation: Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge. 1984 Time and Narrative, vol. 1. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, trans. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. (originally published 1983) 2004 Memory, History, Forgetting. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer, translators. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Stossel, John 2009 Is College Worth It? ABC 20/20. ABC, January 16.Vargas, Elizabeth 2009 Down But Not Out: From Hedge Funds to Pizza Delivery. ABC 20/20. ABC, March 20.