Overqualified And Underemployed In 'Survival Jobs' Millions of Americans have found themselves out of work, but even those who can find employment often must settle for jobs that they're overqualified for. Bankers and technology professionals, for example, have turned to entry-level positions at places like restaurants and stores.

Overqualified And Underemployed In 'Survival Jobs'

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Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The Italian automaker Fiat is gearing up to grab another piece of the American Big Three. Last week, Fiat agreed to take over Chrysler, and today, the company said it's negotiating for the European arm of General Motors. One option Fiat is exploring, a merger of GM's Opal and Saab units with Chrysler Fiat into a new company.

The turmoil in the car business has cost more than 200,000 Americans their jobs over the last year and a half. There are millions of other workers who are underemployed, working at jobs well below their qualifications. As opportunities dry up in fields like banking and technology, mid-career professionals have been forced to take entry-level positions at places like restaurants and stores. NPR's Adam Hochberg talked with a few of them.

ADAM HOCHBERG: Fifty-year-old Joel Lueck has two college degrees, two decades experience in information technology, and until last year, worked as a network engineer for one of the world's largest telecommunications companies. But lately, Lueck's career has taken a sharp detour.

Mr. JOEL LUECK: Okay, your total is $34.08. Plastic okay?

HOCHBERG: In January, Lueck took a part-time job as a late-night supermarket cashier, working a checkout at a Harris Teeter store near his home in Cary, North Carolina.

Mr. LUECK: You just saved $12.31 using your (unintelligible) card this order. Thank you.

HOCHBERG: This, of course, was not the kind of job Lueck was looking for after he was laid from his telecom position last summer, but after searching fruitlessly for something in his field, he decided working a cash register is better than not working at all.

Mr. LUECK: I think like most people I was thinking me working in a grocery store? 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.

HOCHBERG: To put it mildly, Lueck's income took a big drop when he transitioned from the telecom industry to checkout lane Number 4. At Nortel Networks, where he used to work, he earned more than $80,000 a year. The supermarket job pays $8 an hour.

Mr. LUECK: I guess you would say it's humbling, but you end up doing what you have to do to make ends meet. 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.

HOCHBERG: 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.

But employment experts say thousands of other laid-off professionals are still doing what he did, taking what are known as survival jobs to make ends meet. Damian Birkel runs Professionals in Transition, an unemployment support group.

Mr. DAMIAN BIRKEL (Professionals in Transition): It can be, you know, working with my brother-in-law on this, that or the other thing, or one member of Professionals in Transition went to work at the UPS store. People do what they have to do to keep the roof over their head.

HOCHBERG: 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 permanent employment. On the other hand, he says, experienced professionals may struggle emotionally with accepting entry-level positions, and he warns that working a survival job can take time away from searching for a better one.

Mr. BIRKEL: I think that you will find a job much quicker if you are spending 35 to 40 hours a week on your job search, and if you pepper that with part-time positions, a full-time job search is going to be compromised.

Ms. NANCY SCHWARTZ: Let me just get some information and I'll fax it to you right away.

HOCHBERG: Nancy Schwartz says she was aware of the pros and cons before she took her part-time job at this Cary flower shop, but she'd been unemployed for more than a year, after losing her management position at Habitat for Humanity, and she says she was getting desperate for money.

Ms. SCHWARTZ: I mean, I never thought that it would come to that, but it did. So I sort of had to just talk to myself about how hey, it's okay. You know, I didn't want to do it, but I also knew that I really didn't have any other options at that moment.

HOCHBERG: Schwartz now makes about $900 a month taking orders, sorting flowers and waiting on customers. That's not enough to meet her expenses, but at least she's not drawing down her savings as quickly, and she's trying to focus on the positive.

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

HOCHBERG: Schwartz continues to look for something more suited to her education and experience. At the moment, though, she says she has no strong prospects, so she's thought about picking up another part-time position, like waiting tables at night. She's coming to realize that at least in the near term, her career may remain in survival mode. Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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