This week was a big week for many University students as they graduated from fine educational establishments in robes they thought they might never get to wear, beholding a piece of paper which confirms those 3/4/5 years spent studying their subject and the end of a very significant chapter in their existence.

I proudly celebrate with friends who are tasting the first notes of the next course and remember my graduation 2 years ago. Not awfully bothered, I had protested attending and glamorised the idea of graduating in absentia (there was great debate in how to pronounce this: seems to be a sides-of-the-Atlantic thing) but it had been decided that for the good of the parental unit (1/2 of whom did not attend their own undergraduate graduation, ahem), we would go. Not without, of course, a little drama involving the Emergency Gown Tent (!) and flying down to Dublin on time for soundcheck at a gig after the ceremony.

Illustrating the above paragraph: evidence that I did indeed attend graduation with two of my favourite people. It was important to have a nice pedicure for the occasion.

As I reflect on the diverse ways in which one can accept a University degree, I have just left my job and will be starting a new one in a week’s time.

On top of this, in preface to this exciting week of graduation, the BBC kindly/somewhat ironically published government statistics regarding the current job climate for both graduates and school-leavers. It is bleak, to say the least.

So the combination of these events got me thinking about employment…more appropriately, unemployment – or “underemployment”. I have chatted to people about this on Twitter, in real-life, on email and with their consent, will share some nuggets of wisdom for those facing unemployment, uncertainty, a shift in occupation, underemployment, and everything in between. A lot of my close friends were able to contribute first-hand advice: many out of school or Uni in the past 5 years or so, many having spent time as unemployed and underemployed. We are treading rough ground. The recession has hit hard, the economy and professional world are shifting, and we are trying to work our way through it.

Some things to remember as we go:

(Please note: I am a fan of academia but in order to make this post relevant to all, I have sought counsel from school-leavers, apprentices, University students, people with 30-year careers under their belts, and everything in between.)

1. Your job status is not your identity.

Much like the fact that your relationship status does not define you, you cannot and must not let your job status define you, either. You are not simply employed/underemployed/unemployed. It is easy to become overwhelmed, consumed or depressed by your job status, and this is made tenfold more likely when you forget that you are a full, complete human being with a full, complete life. Yes, jobs are important and you should seek out something to do which you will enjoy and grow in – but you are STILL intelligent, gifted, approachable, humorous, and full of promise and future. Un(der)employment makes you no less valuable. Which leads me to…

2. This is a phase.

Unemployment/underemployment is not your life. This is NOT the way it will always be. The best has truly yet to come. Though it is difficult to see the day you get a job/a job that you are well-suited for, that day will come and your today will cease to be. Remember, too, that although University/school/etc… was fun and you had a ball (hopefully), there is LOTS of good stuff coming for you, soon.

3. We live in a particularly difficult time.

Underemployment refers to one being in a job they are overqualified for, or in a capacity they do not find stimulating/stretching professionally. Because of the economic situation and professional world shifts, The Higher Education Statistics Agency report suggests that the number of UK graduates working in ‘basic’ jobs (which they equate to cleaning or bar work) has almost doubled to 10,000 in five years. Further rises in people in sales and customer service roles as well as associate professional and technical jobs were also noted. That’s ok. Many of us have been there. You are not alone.

Whilst the job market is difficult, in my experience, if you want to work, you can work. Things to do as you search/interview/wait:

1. Be flexible.

A separate survey of 1,000 students suggested only a quarter of UK undergraduates expect to gain a job in their field of study. When applying for jobs, ensure that your CV is comprehensive of your life experience and don’t be afraid of unfamiliar territory. Who knows where it might lead you. I have a BA Arts and a postgrad degree in primary school teaching. These certainly helped me in becoming employed, but I have yet to use them in an obvious manner in my professional life. That’s OK.

2. Don’t be a “job snob”

I love this term. You are going to have to work your way up, and pay packets are just not what we’d like at the minute. 39% of students questioned by One Poll said they were prepared to start at the bottom of the career ladder, despite training for a particular vocation for three years or more. Most (71%) said they intended to apply for a wide range of jobs and 58% said they were prepared to work for a yearly wage of less than £20,000. Be prepared to work. If you are after a specific job in a specific field, be willing to work unpaid or as an intern to gain experience and allow for a chance to prove yourself. Along these same lines – let go of your pride. Ask for help with existing contacts: have meetings, collect advice, do some research.

3. Be creative.

With the current shifts in the working world, you must compete or develop something new. What are you good at? What can you offer that others can’t? Focus on honing in these skills and develop yourself. My sister’s boyfriend, a pre-University student on a gap year, has just launched his own ethical t-shirt business. He identified a gap and teamed it with something he was passionate about…and, as people have commented about his story, BOOM. Even if you are not starting your own business and seek employment under someone else’s umbrella – make your professional profile attractive. Learn a new skill or language. Brush up on your knowledge of several specific areas. Make yourself a would-be indispensable/stimulating/interesting employee.

4. Use your un(der)employment wisely.

Be creative and energetic also in your job search. Make your CV the best it can be and make an effort to present yourself well. However, also be aware of the extra time you might have, or at least, the spare brain space if you are underemployed. You are in a unique position (which, if you have been reading so far, will not last forever). One of my friends is a very highly qualified graduate who has not had professional work for the past year – instead, she has paid the bills through resourceful thinking and devoted a lot of time towards helping people in need as well as being a key player in several major charity projects. I spent the last year in a job that allowed me some spare time during the working week as well as lots of thinking space. This allowed me to develop my writing in a paid capacity, research topics that interested me and partake in some very exciting ventures addressing issues I am particularly passionate about. Entering into a more demanding working environment now, I am so grateful for the opportunity to have been able to do those things; and when I was in the job searching phase several months ago, was told that my extra-professional activities had enriched my CV, something which I hope to continue to do.

5. Take care of yourself.

A friend who had a tough time of it this past year but has recently been offered a brilliant permanent post in the area she is qualified in suggests keeping routine in your life as you go through un(der)employment: get out of bed, do some exercise, keep your mind engaged, maintain your social life. This helps keep things in perspective.

// How have you found unemployment or underemployment? How do you cope? Are you now in a job you enjoy? What got you there?

5 thoughts on “Un(der)employment

  1. I’ve been unemployed a couple of times, once for a long time in Glasgow. I think number 5 is the most important to preserve your sanity and your social skills.

  2. Good one. Puts my under- (or wrongly-) employed position in perspective and am more appreciative of having it. Can agree with extra time I have to use on other things/projects I might not always or otherwise have.

    I have job snob tendencies: I fear walking into a less-than-cool job and getting stuck there for a few more years before I find ‘the job’. I give myself a few more months of job search though, then I’ll have to take the plunge (/step-up?)

  3. Thought I’ll add this to the mix:http://www.timeslive.co.za/opinion/columnists/2012/06/21/the-big-read-dear-jobless-graduate
    It is an article written by the rector of one of our South African universities which recently made waves in the media over here. Understand that it is written to a population of which a large component live and operate from third world circumstances – therefore what might seem obvious to some of us lack in the basic upbringing/understanding of these ‘JGs’. Simultaneously, however, many universal principles could be drawn from it too. It’s written somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

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