Want Fries With That? Adults Taking Teens' Jobs

Working the counter at the neighborhood ice cream shop is not the most sophisticated or glamorous of jobs, and it’s one teenagers usually take. But early this year – for the first time in his five years as the manager of a Carvel’s ice cream shop – William Betancourt was fielding calls from grownups begging for a job that pays $7.15 an hour.

In the past, adults called from employment centers looking to place high school kids in Betancourt’s store. Now, they’re calling for themselves – and they’re desperate for income. “They were like, ‘Do you have anything?’” said Betancourt, who manages a Carvel’s in Forest Hills, a neighborhood in Queens in New York City. “They just wanted to work.”

Betancourt is not the only manager getting such calls. Across the country, other businesses with positions that don’t require qualifications or degrees – mainly food service, retail, and customer service – say they are being flooded with applicants who are too qualified for them. As joblessness continues to rise, people who need to pay their bills may be willing to take anything to carry them over.

Working a job that is beneath your skills is part of a broader phenomenon called underemployment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly one in six workers is unemployed or underemployed. That’s almost double what it was a year ago, when about one out of eleven workers was in that situation.

That captures the magnitude of the jobs crisis, said Kevin Jack, principal economist and statewide labor market analyst at the New York State Department of Labor. Historically, those rates were highest among those with low education levels. But now, even white-collar workers are vulnerable, so there is more competition for lower end jobs, Jack said.

Economists say there is no way to determine how many people are in jobs that are beneath their skill level. Other types of underemployment – working for fewer hours than you’d like and working for lower wages than your skills deserve – are quantifiable. A skills mismatch, however, is hard to measure, said David Howell, a professor and economic researcher at Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy. “Who’s to say who is over- and under-qualified for a job?” Howell explained.

But some economists are troubled just by the concept of rising underemployment rates.

“Underemployment is a very, very corrosive thing on our economy,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com, in a phone interview with students at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Because people who are underemployed earn less than they used to, not only do their spending habits decrease, but their general mindset is also affected. “You’re panicked, you’re worried, you’re nervous, and that causes you to pull back even more,” said Zandi.

This anxiety can lead to a lack of confidence in both your financial future and in the country’s. “In fact, the difference between a typical recession and a depression is a loss of faith in our economy,” said Zandi. “And people who are underemployed certainly are losing faith.”

But underemployment is not necessarily a product of the recession, said John Robst, an associate professor of economics at the University of South Florida who specializes in labor economics and who recently published a paper about overeducation and underemployment.

For example, narrowing a job hunt to a specific metropolitan area – even one as large and as job-laden as New York – can make the search more difficult. In such a case, the cause of underemployment is personal, and not wholly symbolic of the job market.

Many workers consider themselves underemployed – and in a sense they are, said Robst, if they have skills that are more advanced than their job requires. But when is that significant from a macroeconomic perspective? If someone is unsuccessful in a nationwide search, that is more likely to reflect the broader economy than if someone is unsuccessful in a search that is geographically limited, which reflects personal choices, Robst said.

“Is it really there?” asked Robst about a recession-related rise in underemployment. “It’s tough to say.” In a weak economy, he explained, there’s probably a slight increase in underemployment, but it gets a lot more attention because the press picks up on it.

Unemployment has taken its severest toll on the young labor force, said Joseph McLaughlin, a senior research associate at the Center for Labor Market Studies in Northeastern University in Boston. Workers between the ages of 16 and 29 make up more than 52 percent of this recession’s laid off work force, said McLaughlin. And some of those newly unemployed young workers are turning to all sorts of jobs, at least to support themselves temporarily.

Twenty-six-year-old Eric Rubin of Linden, N.J. may soon join the ranks of the underemployed. Rubin is an environmental engineer who was laid off in October. He has a bachelor’s degree in geography from George Washington University, a master’s in environmental management from Montclair State and a 3.92 GPA, but he’s having a hard time landing a new job.
Rubin said if he doesn’t find something within the next few months, when his unemployment runs out, he may need to resort to working at a local fast food joint. “It’s weird,” said Rubin. “If you asked me five years ago where I would be, it wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be unemployed. I said I’m going to school, I’m getting my master’s degree, I’m going to have a job. And here I am with a master’s degree, but with no job.”

Because so many young workers are the victims of layoffs and hiring freezes, underemployment and its effect on morale is a big concern for that age group. “It’s not ideal to come out of Harvard and work out of McDonalds, not Goldman Sachs,” said Lindsey Pollak, a career development guide writer whose focus is young professionals.

People in these situations sometimes believe that if they start at a low salary, they might never recover, but Pollak discourages that notion. “I refuse to be one of those people who says that you’re destroyed because the economy is bad,” said Pollak.

Zandi, on the other hand, said he was worried because acquired skills can degrade if people aren’t working in their fields. “You get thrown out of a job that utilized your education and background and you get pushed into something that doesn’t, you lose the skills and talents pretty fast,” he said. This can also have a significant impact on the economy at large, because it can slow down the country’s economic recovery and subsequent growth.

Not everyone is as worried about skill loss. Ann Baehr, a certified professional resume writer and president of Best Resumes of New York, said, “No one is going to think that you lost your edge and your skills if you’re in a temporary position for six months or a year.” In fact, workers in these positions may even expand their skill set, possibly in another industry.

Some workers are willing to do whatever is necessary to stay afloat, but they worry about listing menial jobs on a resume. Pollak said it shouldn’t be a concern. “I think that no one will fault you for what you do during the great recession of 2009 just to get by,” she said.

But for many, it’s not just a matter of making a living – it’s also a matter of pride. “It’s more of a concern on my ego,” said Rubin. “I went to school for eight years for a reason. And here I am and I might be working at McDonald’s or Barnes and Noble.”

Here are some tips for the underemployed from Lindsey Pollack, who writes career development guides for young professionals:

•    Pride shouldn’t get in the way. “Don’t crawl under a rock because you’re embarrassed.”
•    “You’ve got to stay in the game”
o    Keep up on industry news – “If you want to work on Wall Street but you’re now working in retail, read the Wall Street Journal.”
o    Network, network, network.
•    Volunteer – you can get experience and it looks great on your resume.