The Permanent Detour

Underemployment’s Long-Term Effects on the Careers of College Grads

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The rapidly changing world of work presents a flurry of unanswered questions for us all. Take underemployment, which refers to people working in jobs for which they are overqualified. This topic has garnered attention over the years, with researchers illuminating how one in three Americans is underemployed. The prevalence of underemployment raises the question of who is being affected and for how long. Perhaps most importantly, how might we better prepare all students to launch into careers with long-term success?

Key Findings


The first job is critical: 43 percent of workers are underemployed in their first job.


Most who start out underemployed, stay underemployed: Workers initially underemployed are five times more likely to remain so after five years than those who were not underemployed in their first job. And 74 percent of those underemployed at the five-year mark are still underemployed 10 years after their first job.


The financial costs of underemployment are substantial: Underemployed recent graduates, on average, earn $10,000 less annually than graduates working in college-level jobs.


Those who start out well employed rarely slide into underemployment. Conversely, an overwhelming number of college graduates appropriately employed in their first job continued to hold college-level jobs five years later (87 percent). Nearly all (91 percent) of those appropriately employed at the five-year mark were still appropriately employed 10 years later.


Major matters: STEM majors are less likely to be underemployed. For example, only 30 percent of engineering and computer science majors are underemployed.


Women are more likely to be underemployed: Nearly half of women (47 percent) are underemployed compared to 37 percent of men. This is true for women regardless of major – among mathematics majors, for instance, 32 percent of women are underemployed compared to 25 percent of men.

“These findings contradict the popular narrative that underemployment and drift are built into the early phases of career discovery–like some sort of rite of passage for graduates,” said Weise. “We as educators, parents, and students can’t just assume a trajectory of success from the moment of graduation. The future of work is evolving. A key takeaway here is intentionality. Underemployment isn’t inevitable, but avoiding it and achieving positive outcomes will require more deliberate planning by both colleges and students.”

It’s a well-known stereotype. Your barista has a bachelor’s degree. The rental-car clerk graduated with honors. That guy tending bar successfully defended his thesis. Holding a menial or low-skilled first job right out of college, one that makes little use of a bachelor’s degree, seems practically a rite of passage for recent graduates. For many, this job is little more than a placeholder paycheck that—supplemented, perhaps,by Mom and Dad—covers the bills for a year or two before young adults figure out a direction and settle into a long-term career.

Underemployment at the start of a career can leave new graduates disadvantaged

Stories of underemployed college graduates are nothing new. Many parents and their children regard lackluster jobs right after graduation as a detour that will be corrected in a few months—or in the worst case—in a few years. But the long-running narrative is more prominent now in an evolving economy, where entire occupations are expanding and contracting at an alarming speed and rising college tuition prices have resulted in record levels of student debt among recent graduates.

Employment status at the first job can leave a lasting effect. Those starting out underemployed are more likely to stay that way, even after 10 or more years of working.

New evidence uncovered in our study on underemployment, however, suggests that young adults,parents, and college officials shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the job choices new graduates make out of college. Many academics often say they prepare students for their fifth job, not their first. Well, the first job matters more than we previously suspected for getting that fifth job. We found that early-career underemployment is not a mere diversion but rather a potential derailment with lingering instability that can lead to problems down the road. The choice of a first job can reverberate years into the future. This is especially true for women, as well as those in fields outside most STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

Authors and Contributors

Beth Bean

Vice President, National Engagement, Philanthropy and Policy
Strada Education Network

Andrew Hanson

Director of Research
Strada Education Network

Michelle R. Weise, Ph. D.

Author Long Life Learning

Strada Institute advances our understanding of the changing nature of work, so that we can design and create the learning ecosystem of the future.

Burning Glass Technologies delivers job market analytics that empower employers, workers, and educators to make data-driven decisions.


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