Ranks of underemployed also swell in recession

December 26, 1991|By Gregg Fields | Gregg Fields,Knight Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- Maurice Gray hasn't lost his job, but sometimes he feels as if he might as well have.

Mr. Gray is a structural engineer in Miami. He owns his own firm, which once had 10 employees. Now, Mr. Gray is down to "about 4 1/2 " workers, and he is putting in longer hours than ever for far less money.

"I've had to do the drafting, clean the offices, secretarial -- everything," he says. It adds up to more than 90 hours a week, and some weeks he can't afford to draw a salary.

"You do a lot of things differently," Mr. Gray says. "You juggle your mortgage. You debate whether to go to lunch or make a sandwich. We even had trouble making our payments to the engineering society."

If there's any solace to be had, he says, it's knowing some engineers are even less fortunate. "I would rather have half a loaf than none at all," he sighs.

Welcome to the world of the underemployed. Much has been written about the army of the jobless.

But the recession has created a second division of disadvantaged workers -- the underemployed. They are people who survived layoffs but now must work longer hours for less money; or people who drive taxis because their degrees are worthless; or those forced into part-time jobs when they desperately need full-time work.

Underemployment can be just as devastating as unemployment. with the jobless, the underemployed see their savings shrivel, their careers shift into reverse and their dreams evaporate. They file for bankruptcy, worry a lot and cope with a fair amount of indignity.

"It's sort of like a tied football game," says William Werther, a management professor at the University of Miami. "It's better than a loss, but it's not a victory, either."

Measuring underemployment is tough. Hard statistics are difficult to come by. But economists and labor market analysts say the ranks of the underemployed are clearly growing. As one example, the Labor Department says there are 6.3 million part-timers who want full-time positions. That's up 900,000 from a year ago.

Just how bad underemployment hurts depends on the individual. Still, there's little doubt that, for most people, underemployment is a forced detour down a bumpy economic highway.

It isn't just a problem for low-skilled workers, either. In this recession, many highly trained individuals have lost their jobs and been forced into underemployment.

Katrina Baroni Pierre is one example.

Earlier this year, she lost her teaching job in Broward County, Fla. She had to make do with unemployment benefits and sporadic substitute teaching work.

"How do you live on $200 a week?" she says. "I said, the No. 1 priority is rent and No. 2 is the car payment." Even then she and her husband, who's in college, fell a month behind.

Then disaster struck. Their only car broke down. It cost $3,000 to fix. "We had no choice but to put it on Mastercard."

She has since landed a teaching job in neighboring Dade County, paying almost $27,000 annually. But paying off bills from underemployment takes money they wish they could save for a house. And cutbacks in Dade County schools have her worried she'll face underemployment again.

People forced into part-time work are only one measure of underemployment. Another type of underemployment involves taking jobs beneath a person's skill level. Unfortunately, the government doesn't measure this group.

There's ample anecdotal evidence suggesting this is a pervasive problem. For instance, temporary help agencies are bulging with qualified applicants, says the president of a personnel pool. In Palm Beach County, Fla., the mundane task of delivering phone directories, the kind of job the underemployed would seek, drew 1,200 applicants. That's six times the typical volume.

And many, many workers say they're taking lower-skilled jobs to stay afloat. "From what I was making, to now, is about a 60 percent pay cut," says Charles Kelly of Hollywood, Fla. Mr. Kelly was a mechanic with Midway Airlines until it closed its Miami base earlier this year. He was making $18.33 an hour. The airline has since folded.

Mr. Kelly's treasured airline mechanic certification no longer can get him a job. So he's driving a tractor-trailer.

He's hanging onto his house, but little else. He had to file for personal bankruptcy. He rides a motorcycle to work because he can't afford car insurance.

Nevertheless, he's thankful things aren't worse.

"I know a lot of guys in my position," he says. "One guy I work with, driving trucks now, used to be an Eastern pilot."

Stephen Morrell, a professor at Barry University of Miami, says many leading industries have been devastated. They won't bounce back when the recession ends.

"One obstacle to full employment will be acquiring different skills," says Mr. Morrell, "because when the economy comes back, the same sorts of jobs won't be there."

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