Every Sunday morning for the past several weeks, two things have happened: I’ve been asked by well-meaning churchgoers if I’ve had any luck finding a job, then I’ve gone home to a Sunday paper smilingly telling me of rosy job numbers and surging employment that I have seen little evidence of.

These two experiences highlight a growing but frequently underacknowledged problem in our state and national economy. While employment is growing for people with work experience (“At last, back to work,” Jan. 11), the door largely remains shut for recent college graduates, who instead find themselves trapped in a cycle of low-wage hourly labor that can make even living independently just a pipe dream.

Recent pieces highlighting strong hiring numbers have skimmed over the limited nature of hiring increases, failing to show how many workers desiring full-time jobs can only find part-time positions or positions far below their education level. While hiring may have picked up enough to allow the middle-aged mother of two to “lean in” to the workforce again, employers remain wary of taking on any perceived risk, meaning that it remains very difficult to find a full-time position without years of work experience.

I am 23 years old. Like many of my fellow millennials, I spent the last four years in school. I graduated this spring from the honors program of a selective private college in Michigan with two degrees and an internship but no job. I’ve been doing job applications for nearly six months now, and I can count the interviews I’ve had on one hand.

Employers want their new hires to come with work experience, but it takes a job to get it. Like thousands of my peers, I was a student, and thus don’t have three years of employment experience. I took the job I could get — I became a part-time barista.

This is how one enters the ranks of the underemployed.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that for the period covering the last quarter of 2013 through the third quarter of 2014, Minnesota had an underemployment rate of 9 percent. Since the BLS does not divide that number by age or employment level, it is difficult to get a more precise image of what aggregate Minnesota employment looks like.

However, the New York Federal Reserve did release a report early last year highlighting the rising number of college graduates in low-paying jobs that did not require an undergraduate degree. The report studied trends in underemployment since the 1990s, noting that previously, many graduates found themselves working jobs that did not require a college degree but that paid a middle-class salary, while now “job prospects for recent college graduates have indeed worsened.” Not only are grads working in careers that don’t require college degrees, they are getting paid minimum wage (or nearly that) to do so.

Underemployment is a grim, grinding and often invisible shackle on economic growth. Underemployed people spend less, don’t buy houses and have a more difficult time saving.

Since fear sells, headlines across the Web panic over how millennials are delaying marriage or renting rather than buying their own homes and how this will stall the housing market or cause either Western civilization or the economy to collapse. Beneath the hyperbole lies an unspoken truth: People forgo these sorts of life decisions when they feel economically insecure.

Each choice is individual, but each has ripple effects over our entire economy. Any recovery limited to baby boomers and Gen Xers is fatally flawed.

Millennials who are educated, eager and willing to work are being burned out of the workforce before their careers even begin. For economic recovery to be substantial, it must solve their underemployment problem.


Erin Mundahl, an aspiring freelance writer, graduated from Hillsdale College in May 2014. She has worked in a variety of fields, including public affairs and government relations, corporate real-estate management and corn harvesting. She lives in Independence.