Underemployment

Written By
Paul Tracy
Updated November 4, 2020

What is Underemployment?

Underemployment occurs when one does not have a job that is full-time or that reflects his or her training and financial needs. It is not the same as unemployment, which is the percentage of employable people in a country’s workforce who are over the age of 16 and who have either lost their jobs or unsuccessfully sought jobs in the last month and are actively seeking work.

The formula for underemployment rate is:
Number of underemployed / Total labor force

How Does Underemployment Work?

For example, let's say that John Doe graduates from college with a degree in electrical engineering, but the only job he can find is a retail sales clerk. John Doe has a job, so he is not unemployed, but his job does not reflect is skill set, and so he is underemployed.

It is important to note that underemployed is different from not working. Some people may be in school full time, working at home, disabled or retired. They are not considered part of the labor force and therefore are not considered unemployed. Only people not working who are looking for work or waiting to return to a job are considered unemployed.

Some level of underemployment will always be present in an economy as industries expand and contract, as technological advances occur, as new generations enter the labor force, and as long as workers can voluntarily search for better opportunities. This is why most economists agree that there is a natural rate of unemployment in the economy (usually 4% to 6%), and accordingly there will be a natural rate of underemployment as well.

Why Does Underemployment Matter?

Underemployment may be most affected by the number of youthful workers in the labor force, who tend to experience more underemployment as they change jobs and move in and out of the labor force, and public policies that may discourage employment or the creation of jobs (such as a high minimum wage, high unemployment benefits, and low opportunity costs associated with laying off workers).

Employment is the primary source of personal income in the U.S. and thus a source of economic growth. This is primarily why underemployment, which is a lagging indicator, can provide considerable information about the state of the economy and about particular sectors of that economy. For example, high underemployment is generally indicates an economy is underperforming or has a falling gross domestic product, suggesting weak labor demand, unproductive labor policies, or mismatches between the demands of workers and employers. Low or falling underemployment may signal increases in the supply of whatever the new jobs produce, which suggests an expanding economy.

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