Underemployment at work: Billionaire Mark Cuban at Dairy Queen.
For a stathead, following the news during a recession offers daily thrills. Each cycle brings with it the morning's Big Number. Usually some indicator that we are, indeed, screwed six ways from Sunday. Conspicuously absent, however, is the reading that might tell us the most about our economic woes.
Unemployment means you don't have a job. Underemployment means you do, but you A) want to work more or B) are qualified for something more than what you're doing, like a radiologist hawking fries at an Arby's drive-thru.
Unemployment is climbing, nationally and here at home. Last month's tally in Tennessee was nearly twice the figure for last year
. But the same is happening with underemployment: At last check, the national average was the highest its been since we started counting
Why is underemployment so pernicious, yet so easily overlooked?
Because these are people we still count as having jobs. Yet they're stuck in some sort of employment purgatory; too well-off to go on the dole, too poor to make do. Worst of all, underemployment comes with an added bonus: a loss of benefits.
When a worker goes from logging 40 to 30 hours per week their status changes too. Wal-Mart, the King of Corporate Welfare, has been working this angle for years; spreading out fewer hours among more workers so they all qualify as part-time. Thus avoiding the pesky business of picking up the tab when Johny gets knocked cold by one of those ubiquitous falling prices.
Undermployment figures may not get the same scrutiny, but we'd be smart to seek them out. Unemployment will always rule the day. It's easier to count. Easier to understand. But, as any parent or babysitter knows, it's not the mess in front of your eyes that counts. It's the pile of clothes straining against the closet door that pose the biggest threat to knock you on your ass.