Underemployment: what is it, and how is it affecting workers in Swansea?

Recent figures have shown that Wales has the highest rate of underemployment in the UK, with employment patterns in Swansea indicating a similar trend. Here, Cath Jenkins, Employability Partnerships and Programmes Manager at Better Jobs, Better Futures, explains underemployment, its effects, and what is being done to tackle the issue.

What is underemployment?

Definitions of underemployment vary. According to the Office of National Statistics, underemployment applies to people in part-time employment who would like to work more hours and are able to do so. However, people can be underemployed for a range of other reasons, including those working in unstable or fragile employment, for example zero hours contracts or temporary employment, and those who are working in roles which are beneath their level of skills and capability.

Whilst many people may make a conscious choice to work in roles that are short-term or that allow them flexibility to accommodate other life choices, for others underemployment is a source of constant insecurity and a significant barrier to maximising their earnings and career potential.  For employers it can be a barrier to increased productivity and a drain on staff morale.

What factors make Swansea susceptible to high levels of underemployment?

Research suggests that underemployment is more prevalent within certain industry sectors, including: accommodation and food services; wholesale and retail; administration and support services; and health and social work. This is no great surprise when taking into account typically high levels of part-time, low-level and low-paid employment within these sectors.  With the exception of wholesale and retail, these sectors also demonstrate some of the highest use of zero hours contracts.

A number of these sectors also happen to be amongst those with the highest employment share in Swansea so, whilst data on underemployment may not be readily available at a local level, it’s reasonable to assume that levels of underemployment in Swansea will be comparatively high.

What else do we know about those particularly affected by underemployment?

Evidence suggests that age and gender are strong factors influencing the likelihood of underemployment. While young people are most likely to be seeking additional hours in work, and underemployment tends to decrease with age, there is a significant rise in underemployment for women in their 30s and 40s. This suggests a correlation between underemployment and women returning to the workplace.

Similarly, those with a disability are more likely to be underemployed and those with certain health conditions are substantially more likely to be underemployed.

What can be done to buck the trend?

Despite the trend towards high levels of underemployment, there is limited support across Wales specifically aimed at addressing this issue. However, research points to a number of areas where targeted support may be able to help those most at risk. Approaches which work hand-in-hand with employers, as well as with those individuals who are more at risk of being or becoming underemployed, have been shown to have some success, particularly in the US.

There is also evidence to support an increased focus on providing ongoing advice and guidance to those in work, as well as to those entering work, to promote and assist in-work progression and job retention, and encourage greater career adaptability. Similarly, there is a strong case for providing a more seamless continuum or ‘pipeline’ of support for those moving from unemployment into work, in order to minimise the risk of employment exit and encourage future career adaptability and in-work progression.

Better Jobs, Better Futures has based its approach on these themes and is working not only to assist unemployed people into work, but also to help those already in employment to secure better jobs through individually tailored advice and mentoring. Our innovative new programme is committed to supporting as many people in Swansea as possible to gain, retain and progress within employment, while assisting employers to develop the dynamic workforce they need both now and in the future.

The dedicated team of employment experts at Better Jobs, Better Futures includes workforce advisers, career coaches, recruitment consultants and more, all focused on supporting both employer and employee to overcome the barriers associated with underemployment and to promote positive career progression.

For more information and career advice, contact the Better Jobs, Better Futures team here.