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Underemployed Under The Radar On The North Shore


Less than a year ago, Tim Hendricks was a vice president and stock trader 21 years into a career at Merrill Lynch in downtown Chicago. These days Hendricks is selling refrigerators and air conditioners at Abt Electronics in Glenview – and happy to have the job.

He’s one of the countless underemployed workers who fell victim to the recession – countless as in no one is keeping track of them.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks one segment of the underemployed: those who are working part time but would rather be working full-time.

Involuntary Part-Timers

In addition to the 9.3 percent unemployed the U.S. reported in the second quarter, another 5.6 percent are what the bureau’s alternative labor statistics report calls “part time for economic reasons.“

In Illinois the unemployment rate was 9.4 percent with another 6.1 percent involuntarily working part-time hours – which generally means no benefits like health insurance and sick leave.

Like the other north Chicago suburbs, Lake Forest and Lake Bluff’s unemployment rate is substantially lower because its workforce tends to be more highly educated and highly skilled. But for those same reasons, it is especially susceptible to the other type of underemployment.

Government statistics don’t keep count of people who, like Hendricks, are working full-time jobs below their skill and experience levels. Sometimes called “mal-employment” by economists, this type of underemployment is hard to gauge without surveys because these workers aren’t applying for government benefits.

“This question has been around a while but no one’s measuring it,” said Paul LaPorte, who works in the BLS office of economic analysis and information in Chicago.

“That’s the true definition of underemployment,” LaPorte said, “underutilizing your skills; you have qualifications yet somehow through no fault of your own you got stuck doing this other job.”

Funding Your Job Search

Jan Leahy sees both types of underemployment every day as director of the Career Resource Center in Lake Forest, a nonprofit that primarily helps professionals who are looking for work.

In this tough economy, it’s “not uncommon” to see people with graduate degrees or decades of professional experience taking retail sales or other service jobs to bring in some income while they continue a job search, Leahy said.

Job seekers who have put a lot of effort into sending out resumes and making connections have to decide whether to accept lesser offers in their fields: shorter-term assignments or contract work, Leahy said.

“It’s a difficult choice because it does take them out of the market and there can be a loss of momentum with their job search,” she said.

Short-Term Jobs Can Open Doors

Thirty years experience of hiring and firing other people in human resources has given Lake Forest resident Pat McGarrigle a unique perspective on the job market.

He’s now working three days a week as human resources director for the 200 employees at a Joliet company that recycles cooking oil into animal feed and biodiesel. The 62-year-old spends the rest of his time looking for a full-time job where he can finish out his career.

He has been doing shorter-term human resources gigs since last June, when the Des Plaines packaging company where he had been HR director nearly 10 years was bought out by a rival and he was let go.

He said taking contract work has been worth it, teaching him a few new tricks and allowing him to share his own wealth of knowledge.

“I like knowing I may be able to help the company improve their processes and to have that be appreciated,” he said. “It makes you feel good at a time when you really need an ego boost.”

Working three days per week also provides some “respite and reprieve” from the job search grind, McGarrigle said.

“It can get rather frustrating doing that day in and day out,” he said.

Unexpected Rewards

Taking jobs that don’t necessarily use all of your skill set can be extremely rewarding, said Leahy, the Career Resources Center director.

She recalled one professional worker who decided to get a retail job while he was looking for career employment and, since he was an avid fisherman, applied at a Bass Pro Shop and ended up loving the job.

Likewise, Hendricks said he wasn’t sure what to expect going from selling an abstract idea like stocks to selling refrigerators and washers and dryers at Abt.

Now he loves it – and the Glenview family-owned business where he works, its “Fortune 500” level benefits, onsite fitness center and his fellow employees.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “This is my career now.”

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