5 Ways to Come Out From Under the Cloud of Underemployment

Underemployment is an epidemic in America. For many workers today, it feels like a punishment to receive such low pay after all the money and time poured into their educations. I don't even think "underemployment" was a word in nineteen-eighty-whenever-that-was. Now, you're handed an umbrella too small to cover your arms from the storm.

I had my own period of underemployment, and though it was partially my fault, no one told me how much damage it would do to my self-esteem. I used to tell my friends I wasn't working instead of telling the truth. It was easier.

In a recent PayScale survey, 46 percent of respondents said they believed they were underemployed. Of those respondents, 76 percent said they felt underemployed because they were not using their education or training. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not measure underemployment because of "the difficulty of developing an objective set of criteria," it is safe to say that underemployment is a serious social challenge doing harm to our economy.

If you see the dark clouds of underemployment gathering around you, it's time to find shelter. Underemployment doesn't have to last – especially if you're open to change:

1. Come Out From the Rain of Complacency

When it rains, most of us think "sleep, television, or Netflix and chill." When you're underemployed, it's like rain on your career – and under the covers you go. Going to work simply to exist without looking ahead toward thriving is a good way to become underemployed.

So-called "professional development" is often too comfortable. People are happy with the training, but they never face the application afterward. People who thrive in their careers step outside their comfort zones to develop skills and find new jobs.

2. Find Shelter From the Storms of Personal Difficulties

Personal tragedies and difficulties can obscure your focus. The strongest among us can buckle under the pressure of work, depression, or the loss of a loved one. Even coping with people who get undeserved promotions ahead of us can be difficult.

We can all be resilient – even when faced with emotional challenges that seem larger than they are. Friends are there if you let them be. I chose to let them in, and it motivated me to reach higher. You may have to allow friends to help where they can.

3. Install Snow Tires to Plow Through the Blizzards of Rejection

The sting of rejection is the start of healing and progress. Too many of us build narratives around our emotions instead of gaining perspective on what they mean. Rejection can cloud your vision, but you don't have to feel hopeless for long. Knowing why you're getting rejected is the beginning of a new career perspective.

I felt a double whammy when I was underemployed because it happened the same summer my girl broke off our relationship. The rejection became my incentive, and the sting eventually subsided.

It helps to feel useful immediately after being rejected. If it's skills you lack, volunteer work can help you shore up those skills. Five to ten hours a week of honing a skill can help you achieve great things. Joining volunteer boards is a major plus in terms of gaining expertise and adding credibility to your personal brand. Blogging is still a compelling and relevant way to add layers of credibility to your brand while finding the right opportunity.

4. Career Development Can Ward Off Dark Clouds on the Horizon

If you wait too long, you will lose steam and find yourself behind on your journey. Training is kind of like dog years: People who leverage new opportunities to learn can do in one year what takes seven years for those who ignore development.

Part of thinking critically is anticipating what could go right or wrong. It's a learning process, but once you can see the storms coming, you can reconfigure your actions. You can't close your eyes and hope for the best. It takes a little more critical thinking in today's job market.

5. Prepare for Cloudy Days

Relying solely on job boards can be discouraging and counterproductive. You can be proud of clicking the "submit" button many times, but the wait is terrible. Even job leads from your network aren't always the most reliable. The uncertainty of trying to advance in your career can be unbearable.

You don't need to only prepare professionally for the job search. You also need to prepare mentally for the periods when your career seems to be slumping.

Sometimes, nothing will happen. It may feel like your actions are futile. There are little things you can do to make a difference. Can you add more career highlights to your LinkedIn profile? Are there career books you can read? Can you serve a family member or spouse? Is there someone you can help with a lead, referral, or recommendation?

For some people, underemployment is something they do to themselves. If they're satisfied with that, it's okay. Just as some people love walking in the rain, others would prefer to accept positions that give them peace of mind, no work to take home, and, perhaps, the chance to do something they enjoy.

But not everyone does. If you're one of those people, start taking these five steps today to get out from under the cloud of underemployment.

Mark Anthony Dyson is a career consultant, the host and producer of "The Voice of Job Seekers" podcast, and the founder of the blog by the same name.