Managing underemployment in organisations

Underemployment seems to be the hallmark of modern workforce. In it are inherent problems such as limited job satisfaction, lower than expected remuneration and negative emotional well- being.

Underemployment is a situation where workers are employed below their education and skills levels. Research has also shown that there are two types of this phenomenon- the visible and invisible. The visible arm is where an employee is working less hours than is typical in their field. The employee is willing to work more hours but cannot get full time employment. Such people often work part time jobs just to make ends meet. They are rendering their services for less pay. Invisible underemployment includes working on full time jobs that do not fully utilise an employee’s skills set. A skilled worker gets to do a low skilled job because they could not secure a job commensurate with their skills. Both phenomena are increasingly becoming common in our local context. I have always challenged organisations to specify the minimum requirements for jobs as a function of the job and not the labour market.

Causes of underemployment can be attributed to adverse economic conditions such as recession caused by a decline in economic activities. Changes in technology can also result in excess labour supply and low demand due to layoffs. Under such circumstances a low paying, low skilled and part-time job is often preferred to no job.

While underemployment may seem like a business bargain, it carries real risk for the business in the long run. The effects trickle down to the occupational scale and productivity often drops. The reason is because highly qualified workers are more likely to be dissatisfied with the job they are forced to take by circumstances. They are likely to be bored, resentful and distracted than those whose skills are commensurate with the job requirements. Chronic underutilisation of education skills and human capital engenders workplace frustration and low morale. Underemployment also has an effect on an employee identity and value proposition.

Paradoxically, today young graduates expect good jobs as their just reward for years of increasingly expensive higher education. Additionally, they also prefer interesting work that offers a chance of personal career growth and high incomes later. I have heard one say,” Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirits.’

As a way forward thoughtful employers must create conditions that try to ensure employees are engaged to their work and in turn to the company. Policies that further develop and promote internal promotions rather that hiring external candidates can capture greater value from the employees.

Current Human Resources Management trends talk of employee employability as a strategy to encourage workers to use their higher order skills. Employers are talking of outplacement strategies where they try to assist employees to unlock knowledge and skills to be utilised beyond their life with the organisation. Management creativity will manage underemployment economically.

In order to try manage underemployment , employees should forget about clinging desperately to one job/ company or even a career path. There is a real need for workforce that is competitive which can find work when needed wherever it can be. Management need not be satisfied with employees who only look up to them for career development. Employees need to be given responsibilities to manage their own careers while employers provide the tools and an open environment. Creating a career resilient workforce who are not only dedicated to the idea of continuous learning but should stand ready to reinvent themselves to keep pace with changes becomes an imperative when managing underemployment.

Organisations in the Silicon Valley moved in that direction long back and then it sounded far- fetched. Companies like 3M, Raychem Corporation and Apple also implemented such programs though differently despite a common objective of giving employees power to assess, hone and redirect and expanding their skills so as to stay competitive on the job market. This approach requires a sea change in attitude and values. The new mandate for leaders is to get rid of traditional   definitions of loyalty and allow employees to jump the ship and go.

Another approach is changing the usual view of a career path. In the old days it meant sticking with one company and rising in an area of speciality. These days both company and employees are healthier if employees have multiple skills which will allow them to move easily across functional boundaries to avoid underemployment. Employees should be comfortable switching back and forth between regular duties and special projects when the right fit with one career path and or organisation can no longer be found.

In the long run businesses have a lot more to gain when they do not turn a blind eye on underemployment. Organisations should not expect employees to feel grateful for being employed in difficult times but should be cognisant of the effects disengaged staff. Employees on the other hand need to constantly benchmark their skills. These and more approaches will awaken and galvanise organisations so that square pegs and round pegs find their way into the right holes.

Emmanuel Jinda is the Managing Consultant of PROSERVE Consulting Group, a leading supplier of Professional Human Resources and Management services locally, regionally and internationally. He can be contacted at Tel: 263 773004143 or 263 242 772778 or visit our website at