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LANSING — While the plight of unemployed workers in this sluggish economy is well known, another group of workers is also struggling.
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.”
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.
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. “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.
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.