temp work

Turning underemployment into a better career

October 28, 2011: 9:45 AM ET

Our readers explain how taking a step down  -- even temping for a while -- can lead to surprising opportunities down the road.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Underemployment -- defined as doing a job for which one is overqualified, or involuntarily working part-time instead of full-time -- gets less attention than outright unemployment, but there's no denying it's a problem: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that about 9.3 million Americans who want to find full-time jobs are doing part-time work as a stopgap, double the number who did so in (pre-recession) 2007.

Some people find themselves underemployed before their careers have even gotten off the ground: In 2009 and 2010, one survey found, 40% of new college grads took jobs that don't require a college degree.

Yet it seems that underemployment needn't be a permanent setback. Many thanks to everyone who responded to my recent query. Among those who emailed their stories, two main threads emerged: Using temporary work as a steppingstone to a permanent position, and treating a step down as a chance to learn a new career.

Bill Driscoll, a district president at accounting and finance staffing firm Robert Half International, is the first to admit that temping "can be a major morale killer." But, he adds, "Every job is an opportunity, even if it isn't your dream job. It's a chance to showcase your skills, gain new ones, and grow your network. We do see lots of people turning contract assignments into 'real' jobs. It does happen."

A case in point: Nicole White, who quit a full-time job in California where she managed a team of 20 employees doing fundraising for nonprofits, and moved to Florida when the military relocated her husband there. White could not  find a position like the one she left, so she signed on with a temp agency and took a $9-an-hour, no-benefits, 30-hours-a-week customer service assignment at a bank.

The work didn't require her management skills: "I was answering phones for four or five hours a day and transferring money for people who couldn't use a computer." Still, she put her best effort into it. Several months later, her efforts paid off. Last March, White was hired by her county's economic development office, "with salary and benefits at the level I was used to in California." More

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