Overqualified And Underemployed In 'Survival Jobs'

Joel Lueck is a former IT professional who now works as a supermarket cashier. Adam Hochberg/NPR i i

When Joel Lueck was laid off from an $85,000-a-year position as a computer network engineer, he worked part time as a supermarket cashier for four months. Just last week, he landed a contract position in telecommunications and quit working at the supermarket. Adam Hochberg/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Adam Hochberg/NPR
Joel Lueck is a former IT professional who now works as a supermarket cashier. Adam Hochberg/NPR

When Joel Lueck was laid off from an $85,000-a-year position as a computer network engineer, he worked part time as a supermarket cashier for four months. Just last week, he landed a contract position in telecommunications and quit working at the supermarket.

Adam Hochberg/NPR

Millions of Americans have found themselves out of work since the recession began, but even those who can find employment often must settle for jobs they're overqualified for.

Midcareer professionals from fields like banking and technology have been forced into entry-level positions at places like restaurants and stores. Or they've settled for part-time work because they can't find a 9-to-5 job.

They're considered underemployed by employment analysts. And their numbers aren't reflected in the Labor Department's metrics.

Overqualified Cashier

Fifty-year-old Joel Lueck wouldn't be counted in official unemployment figures. He has two college degrees, two decades of experience in information technology, and worked as a network engineer for one of the world's largest telecommunications companies. Then, last summer, he was laid off from his telecom position.

After searching fruitlessly for something in his field, he decided working a cash register was better than not working at all. So in January, Lueck took a part-time job at a Harris Teeter store near his home in Cary, N.C.

"I think like most people I was thinking, 'Me working in a grocery store?'" Lueck remembers. "But not knowing how long the unemployment might be or how long it was going to take for businesses to recoup, I decided to go for it."

To put it mildly, Lueck's income took a big drop when he transitioned from the telecom industry to checkout lane No. 4. At Nortel Networks, he earned more than $80,000 a year. At the supermarket, he made $8 an hour, which he used to supplement his unemployment payments to support his family of four. (In North Carolina, workers can still collect unemployment if they work part-time while looking for a full-time job.)

"Guess you would say it's humbling, but you end up doing what you have to do to make ends meet," he said. "I could be doing nothing at home, or I could come in and make 100 bucks in a week. It's not a lot, but it helps bridge the gap."

Lueck ended up staying in this job for four months. Just last week, he landed a contract position in telecommunications and quit working at the supermarket.

Getting A Survival Job

But employment experts say thousands of other laid-off professionals are still doing what Lueck did. When well-educated professionals who've been laid off from lucrative positions take positions they're overqualified for, experts call them "survival jobs."

Damian Birkel, founder of the North Carolina unemployment support group, Professionals in Transition, estimates nearly half of the group's 100 members now work survival jobs. He says they range from jobs with relatives to jobs at the UPS store.

"People do what they have to do to keep the roof over their head," he says.

Birkel says survival jobs not only can bring in money, but some also provide benefits, and he's seen a few cases where they've led to more permanent employment. On the other hand, he says, experienced professionals may struggle emotionally with accepting entry-level positions.

He also warns that working a survival job, whether full- or part-time, takes time away from finding a better position.

Grappling With A New Reality

Nancy Schwartz says she was aware of the pros and cons before she took a survival job at a flower shop in Cary. She'd been unemployed for more than a year after losing her management position at Habitat for Humanity.

Schwartz now makes about $900 a month taking orders, sorting flowers and waiting on customers. That's not enough to meet her expenses, but she says she was "desperate for money" and isn't drawing down her savings as quickly now.

"You know I didn't want to do it, but I also knew I really didn't have any other options at that moment," Schwartz says. "So I sort of had to just talk to myself about how, 'Hey, it's OK.'"

Like most people with survival jobs, Schwartz is still looking for something more suited to her education and experience. At the moment, though, she has no strong prospects, so she's thinking of picking up another part-time position. She says she's found positive aspects in her new line of work.

"Although I don't see, you know, being here forever, I really like the people a lot, and I love the flowers. And when you don't have a full-time job, feeling like you're contributing is really, really important."

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