Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Many workers toiling below their skill levels

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By ADAM DeLAY
Capital News Service

LANSING – While the plight of unemployed workers in this sluggish economy is well known, another group of workers is also struggling largely out of public view.

They’re the underemployed — workers who want full-time jobs but find themselves stuck in part-time positions or at jobs below their skill level.

Susan Parks, president of the Michigan League for Human Services, said underemployment hurts families and the state.

“Families are making less money and having a hard timing paying the bills,” she said. “The state also suffers because people are spending less, which hurts revenues.”

The league is a nonprofit advocacy organization on economic security issues for low-income residents.

Western Michigan University economics Professor Jean Kimmel said part of the problem is the lack of high-paying but unskilled jobs.

“It used to be possible to have a middle-class salary by working as an unskilled laborer in the manufacturing industry, but today we don’t have unskilled jobs that pay very high,” she said.

Many of Michigan’s most popular occupations are low-wage unskilled positions, including retail salespeople, cashiers and fast food workers. Four of six occupations with the most employees in the state don’t pay enough to lift a family of four out of poverty, according the U.S. Department of Labor.

The state averaged a 12.6 percent unemployment rate during the last year, but that jumps to 19.2 percent when adding part-time workers seeking full time jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Current statistics don’t calculate skilled workers in unskilled jobs because it’s hard to measure, meaning the underemployment percentage may be higher.

Michigan’s unemployment rate was 15.1 percent in October.

Kimmel suggests a solution to the underemployment problem is increasing both the number of high-wage jobs and educational opportunities for workers.
“Part of the equation is trying to get back some of the high-wage jobs we’ve lost, but it’s very hard to get a high-wage job with a high school education,” she said

Parks said it’s important to retrain workers for higher-skilled jobs so they can be more competitive.

“Michigan ranks very low in the percent of people with higher education,” she said. “It’s not enough anymore to have a high school degree, and we’re working to push adult education and retraining.”

Malorie Kersten, public relations coordinator for the Michigan Works! Association, said underemployed workers can receive retraining and assistance at her organization’s service centers.

“There is a common misconception that Michigan Works! only serves those who are on welfare or unemployed, but we will assist anyone,” she said. “People who come in can practice interviewing for a new job or have someone go over their resume with them for free.”

Kersten said underemployed residents may qualify for the No Worker Left Behind Program, which offers up to $10,000 for courses that prepare them for new jobs. The program is open to those who are unemployed, about to become unemployed or have a joint family income of under $40,000 a year.

Even underemployed workers who don’t qualify for the program can take advantage of other services provided by Michigan Works! she said.

“We enable workers at any point in their career to get the skills they need to further their career,” she said. “If you come in to a service center, you’ll have a professional meet with you and discuss your options.”

© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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