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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

3 Strategies for Dealing When You're Underemployed

Are you as far along in your career as you thought you would be five years ago?
If not, don’t panic.

Turns out, underemployment—or working at a job you’re overqualified for—is rampant in the U.S., at 17.4% according to Gallup in August 2013. And let’s not forget those post-2008 graduates entering one of the toughest job markets in recent history. Since the economic downturn, underemployment has become a reality for more and more people, and the consequences for careers and wallets alike aren’t pretty.

The good news is that job numbers are finally starting to trend in the right direction. But if you’re in more of hurry to improve your predicament, Thomas Kochan, author of Restoring the American Dream and professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has a few pointers. In an article for Fortune, he offers a few strategies to combat underemployment and get your career back in the fast lane.

Here are some of my favorites:

1. Hone the Skills You Want to Use

You don’t have to wait until you’ve landed a full-time gig in the industry of your choice to start using your hard-earned skills. In fact, it’s absolutely true that if you don’t use them, you’ll lose them. Kochan suggests being “aggressive and creative in putting your skills to work,” and looking for ways to use and hone your talents outside of the place that pays your salary. For example, “if you write well, put out a blog or send commentaries on current issues to whatever media you favor… if you are working part-time or even full-time, find volunteer opportunities that put your skills, particularly your leadership skills, to work to bolster your resume in something related to your career interests.” (Here are a few more ideas on starting to do what you love, today.)

2. Take Initiative in Your Current Position

No matter what type of gig you find yourself in, Kochan believes you can make an impact and show off what you’re capable of. To do so, he advocates “negotiate[ing] with your boss and the boss’ boss for assignments that go beyond your formal job description.” The key here is to exceed expectations. If you see an area or process your office could improve upon, point it out and offer to help solve the problem. Take on additional short-term assignments, or suggest resume-boosting tasks you could assist with. “Don’t passively accept the job as it is defined for you,” says Kochan. “Expand it and see if you can really use it as a learning and growth opportunity.”

3. Keep Learning New Skills

Even more good news: The world keeps changing—which means that new skills are constantly in demand and new opportunities to put them to use will present themselves. So, while you’re not feeling challenged at your day job, think about what in-demand skills you might be able to add to your resume. Better yet, take advantage of the fact that you’re employed and, as the professor suggests, “ask about and put to use any educational benefits offered by your employer; look at where technology in your profession is going and find educational and/or task assignments that help you learn what you will need to master what’s coming next.” (Here are a few other ways to find professional development classes in your field.)

Being underemployed is incredibly discouraging, but it’s not impossible to overcome. As Kochan explains, “enter and stay in the realm of life-long learning—it will pay life-long dividends.” Keep your head up and keep moving forward. When the right opportunity comes, you’ll be ready.

Photo of bench courtesy of Shutterstock.

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