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Meeting in the middle:  employees, employers and the underemployment trap

Recent data released by the Office for National Statistics reveal how disproportionately affected young people are when it comes being underemployed. Catch22 Director of Communications, Melissa Milner, outlines the conversation and recommendations made at our recent underemployment roundtable

24 June 2022

In the second of our roundtable series focused on underemployment, we explored underemployment from two perspectives. First from the perspective of a young person and secondly from the perspective of an employer.

Our aim was to try and explore the nature of underemployment and how it can manifest itself in different ways depending on individual circumstances. We then went on to look at it from an employers’ perspective – what are the potential ways in which they could contribute to tackling youth underemployment? And what challenges might they face in doing so?

The employee’s perspective

The nature of underemployment inevitably varies between individuals and is in many ways subjective.

However, there were some clear themes that came out of our discussions around the characteristics of underemployment – and what those who are underemployed might need in order to lift them out of the underemployment trap.

  • Skills and qualifications: For some people who are underemployed, gaining skills and qualifications is key to being able to identify a clearer career path.
  • Holistic support: There can be a range of contributory factors to being underemployed: housing insecurity, the need to support a family, and the rising cost of living can all mean little option but to take any job available. Ensuring there is adequate support to address these issues could greatly reduce the need to seek employment of any sort.
  • Financial education: Given the financial pressures that can often result in underemployment, solid financial education on how to budget and how to navigate the benefits system could offer a route out of underemployment.
  • Career guidance and mentors: For some people who are underemployed, lack of awareness of the options open to them career-wise can be a severely limiting factor. Good careers advice has to start in schools, with education on the range of career pathways including traineeships and apprenticeships. Mentors (either within the workplace or outside of it) can provide vital support and guidance to people unable to see a way out of their current role.

The employer’s perspective

For employers of any size, employee commitment and loyalty both hold considerable value. There is undoubtedly a role to play by employers, to be aware of the underemployment trap and contribute to tackling some of the root causes.

In practice, this could mean:

  • Offering flexibility for employees with caring responsibilities. This might mean condensed hours for example.
  • Providing mentoring within the workplace: Recognising the pressures that employees face outside the workplace, and the fact that many people simply don’t have the time to sit down and map out a career path. Offering young staff the support of a mentor can have a hugely positive impact.
  • Flexible benefits: Depending on the circumstances of the employee, some benefits are more valuable than others. For example, some may never use free gym membership, but for others it would be a significant benefit and cost-saving. Similarly, free family healthcare could be valuable to some employees, but of little value to those without a family. Having a ‘shopping list’ of benefits for employees to pick and choose from could provide an opportunity to deliver the benefits that the individual would value the most.
  • Clear progression opportunities: While progression and promotion within a company is not always possible, that shouldn’t stop companies investing the time (and in some cases money), into developing staff. This can play a major part in helping them avoid underemployment in both current and future roles.

Rethinking the workplace

Firstly, employees need to recognise their status as underemployed. That means recognising that zero hours contracts, instability, lack of progression, and roles for which you’re underqualified, all count as being underemployed (if, of course, you don’t want to be working under those conditions).

Once that’s recognised, it’s vital that employees know their rights and options:

  • Are they aware of their rights to request flexible working?
  • What training options are available to them?
  • How they can access support with both within the workplace and outside?

And from the employer perspective:

  • What provisions could be put in place to address some of the factors that contribute to underemployment?
  • Is there the opportunity to provide flexible hours?
  • Is there the opportunity to directly address mental and wellbeing in the workplace through staff groups?
  • Is there the opportunity to offer flexible benefits?

And, even if some, or all, of this is a challenge to the employer, being transparent and open with employees about potential job progression and any benefits is vital.

Finding solutions

In our final underemployment roundtable next month, we’ll be honing our recommendations for ensuring young people are given the opportunity to secure ‘good jobs’, not just any job. Employees and employers clearly play a part, but policymakers are also key. We’ll also be looking at the wider implications of being underemployed when it comes to applying for mortgages, building up a pension and more, and looking at how these discrepancies could be addressed through policy change.


With thanks to contributions from: Youth Employment UK, The Princes Trust, West Midlands Combined Authority, Rothschild Foundation, Youth Futures Foundation and participants from our Horizons programme.