Low Unemployment Rate Hides Trials of the Underemployed


Taking a look at today’s monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), it’s easy to focus on one number: the national unemployment rate. February’s rate is 4.1 percent, unchanged since January but still very low.

For Coloradans like myself, the news is even rosier: the Centennial state boasts an unemployment rate of under three percent, one of the lowest in the country.

While Colorado is enjoying historically low unemployment rates, we need to remember that this rising tide is not lifting all boats: what is not reflected in the monthly CPS are the hundreds of thousands of Coloradans who are underemployed.

Who are the underemployed?

“Underemployed” is a squirrely term that means different things to different people (its fluid definition makes it notoriously difficult to measure), but it is largely understood to include people who:

  • Work part-time but want to work full-time or
  • Work full-time in a job in which they don’t use their skills to their full potential or
  • Work full-time in a job well-suited to their skills but who are underpaid or
  • Are employed, but whose current earnings are not sufficient compared to their earnings from their previous job

While no government statistics provide a total number of people who are underemployed, the CPS does include a measure called the U-6 (a glamorous name, I know), which measures the number of people who are unemployed, the number of people who are “marginally attached” (defined by the BLS as people who are not in the labor force, want and are available for work, and have looked for a job sometime in the past 12 months), and people who are working part time for economic reasons (this last group is widely known as “involuntary part-time workers”).

As a hard-to-quantify sector of the workforce, the underemployed are also hard to serve; they face many barriers, and often struggle with feelings of stress and unhappiness.

Amy Downing

“In many cases, people who are underemployed are working two to three part-time jobs because full-time living wage jobs are not available to them without additional training,” said Amy Downing (pictured right), Upskill Coach at WorkLife Partnership, a Colorado nonprofit that specializes in strategic talent engagement and retention programs. “They very often express a lack of hope for the future.”

Rich Parr, Business Services Representative at the Colorado Workforce Center in Montrose, Colorado, notes that even people who make decent money struggle with underemployment. "In rural Colorado underemployment can be quite difficult to overcome. Many people love the lifestyle away from the big cities, but it can be quite hard to find work that matches one’s education or experience level in smaller communities due to a lack of career positions available. While striving to find work that is meaningful and rewarding, it can be frustrating when we find ourselves underemployed. That can lead to a future full of uncertainty and a feeling of hopelessness."

Amy and Rich are two of 28 career coaches participating in the Governor’s Coaching Corps, an eight-month leadership and skills development program for career coaches created by Skillful and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. They and four of their cohort are on an action team that is identifying best practices for serving people who are underemployed. At the end of the program, they will present their findings to state policymakers for potential adoption.

Because all members of the action team work with job seekers, Amy, Rich, and their teammates know how difficult it can be for people who are underemployed to move to a better career pathway. “There is the Catch-22 for people who are underemployed,” said Amy. “They are so busy working two to three jobs that it feels impossible to add a training program to the mix. Because of this ‘hamster wheel’ that clients feel like they are on, they very often don't seek out additional resources to help them.”

As Amy notes, the challenges facing the underemployed are compounded by the perception that workforce centers focus on pre-employment activities: “It is often difficult for people who are underemployed to connect with services that are available—which is a shame, because people who are underemployed are often just as stressed out and in crisis as people who are unemployed.”

What help is available for people who are underemployed?

If you’re underemployed, consider visiting your local workforce center. No matter where you are in your career, workforce centers can help you figure out how to find rewarding and sustainable work. In addition to helping you rework your resume and cover letter, workforce centers provide career counseling and training, networking opportunities, skills assessments, and much, much more.

o learn more about the Governor’s Coaching Corps, check out this short overview video.


If you are a career coach in search of a supportive environment, register for our Coaching Community of Practice, a virtual support network in which career coaches can share resources and best practices as well as participate in educational webinars and calls.

About Katherine Keegan

Katherine Keegan is a Manager at Skillful. She is an experienced relationship manager who oversees Skillful’s Coaching Initiative, which includes the Governor’s Coaching Corps and the Coaching Community of Practice. Connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter @KKeegan17.

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.