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Minding the Gap of Underemployment

Minding the Gap of Underemployment

Halfway through my course on interview technique (in English) last week, I brought up the slide on which appeared what turned out to be a dreaded interview question: “So, please tell me/us, why do you want to leave your current job?”

A few minutes before these fear-inducing words were shown on the screen, I had asked the 35 people sitting in the classroom – the majority of whom were foreign-born and had lived in Norway for only a few years – to describe their current work situation. Had they been temporarily laid off, had they just received notice, were they unemployed and looking for new work? Surprisingly, the majority of them responded that they were actually employed yet looking for a new position in a different organization. My assumption that most of my participants that evening were out of a job had turned out to be wrong; on the contrary, they were as the phrase goes ‘looking for new opportunities’ in the employment market.

Next, a woman raised her hand and asked me what I would call the state in which they found themselves. I thought a moment and replied that in English we have the well-known terms of being ‘employed’ or ‘unemployed’, but that in reality what several workers are is the in-between term of ‘underemployed’. We looked the term up on www.dictionary.com, finding the following two definitions: 1) employed only part-time when one is available for full-time work 2) employed at a job that does not fully use one’s skills or abilities. I noticed several heads nodding eagerly around the room as people realized that this this new word described what they were experiencing at work in job descriptions that no longer (or had perhaps never) truly utilized their talents and expertise. They talked enthusiastically to one another about just why this term applied to them; why had they not heard it before? It described their situation perfectly!

After talking a bit more about what it means to be underemployed, I assured my students that it is one of several perfectly acceptable reasons for wanting to leave a job. I went on to list a few standard phrases used in this context, including wanting more “career growth” and/or to follow their chosen “career path”. However, although quite trendy in the current job search vernacular, they are somewhat vague and a tad pretentious: would anyone truly feel comfortable using them when sitting in ‘the hot seat’ during an interview? So I gave them the more traditional phrase: “I’m looking for new challenges on the job”. And then asked everyone to take a few minutes and explain in more exact detail just what those challenges were to their partner. After all, I figured they knew their own fields well enough that this wouldn’t be a problem, right?

Wrong. First there was silence, then bursts of quiet talk began to fill the room as the one partner made a halting attempt to answer the question. I walked around listening to what people were saying, but quickly got the impression that the most common statement went along the lines of, “Well, I just don’t like what I’m doing…it’s boring…” or that there were in fact more people-oriented problems than task-oriented ones: “I can’t stand my boss…the people I work with are driving me crazy…my co-workers just don’t seem to understand me…it’s lonely where I work”. When asked by me to take out the personal factor and tell us what new task-related challenges they were looking for, most replied that this was a very difficult question to answer, as they hadn’t given it a lot of thought. They just knew they weren’t being challenged enough where they were at now, and work had become routine. That’s when I understood that the question appearing up on the screen was actually a dreaded one for many of my students: they knew what they didn’t want, but they didn’t know how to describe what they did.

Once more I had make an incorrect assumption during the evening (wrong of me and slightly embarrassing, but also one of the reasons why teaching is so interesting), this time believing that people would be able to articulate clearly just what they wanted to do at their next place of employment. But the fact that they weren’t able to do this was actually all right, as it was the reason they’d signed up for the course in the first place. To bring these things out in the open, talk about them with others who understand their situation, get help learning the English words necessary to put a task-related finger on what they wanted out of their next employment situation. To get past the gap of where they were and where they wanted to be, as it were. But to get there, they have to do their homework and put into words what they want in ways the interviewer(s) will understand; if they don’t, they risk not getting ‘the call’ after the interview’s all over and remaining in their discontented state of underemployment, which in the end is more dreadful than being asked at an interview why they want to leave their current job.

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