Why You Should Never Take a Job Below Your Skill Level

Sociology Study Proves It Harms Your Future Employment

An Asian American woman looks at job listings in a newspaper. A new study found that working below one's skill level can harm future hiring outcomes.
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Many often find themselves considering jobs below their skill level in tough employment markets. Faced with ongoing unemployment, or the option of part-time or temporary work, one might think that taking a full-time job, regardless of whether it falls below your level of qualifications, is the best option. But it turns out that there is scientific proof that working in a job below your skill level harms your later chances of getting hired for a better-paying job more appropriate to your qualifications.

Sociologist David Pedulla at The University of Texas at Austin examined the question of how part-time jobs, temporary jobs, and jobs below a person's skill level affect future employability. Specifically, he wondered how this employment variable would influence whether applicants received a callback (via phone or email) from a prospective employer. Pedulla also wondered whether gender might interact with the employment variable to influence the outcome.

To examine these questions Pedulla conducted a now fairly common experiment--he created fake resumes and submitted them to firms that were hiring. He submitted 2,420 fake applications to 1,210 job listings posted in five major cities across the U.S.--New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston--and advertised on a major national job-posting website. Pedulla constructed the study to examine four different kinds of jobs, including sales, accounting/bookkeeping, project management/management, and administrative/clerical positions.

He tailored the fake resumes and applications so that each demonstrated a six-year history of employment and professional experience relevant to the occupation. In order to address his research questions, he varied the applications by gender, and also by employment status for the previous year. Some applicants were listed as having been employed full-time, while others listed part-time or temporary work, working in a job below the applicant's skill level, and others were unemployed for the year prior to the current application.

The careful construction and execution of this study allowed Pedulla to find clear, compelling, and statistically significant results that show that applicants who were positioned as working below their skill level, regardless of gender, received only half as many callbacks as those who were working in full-time jobs the previous year--a callback rate of just five percent compared to a little more than ten percent (also regardless of gender). The study also revealed that while part-time employment did not negatively affect the employability of women, it did for men, resulting in a callback rate of less than five percent. Being unemployed in the previous year had a modestly negative impact on women, reducing the callback rate to 7.5 percent, and was much more negative for men, who were called back at a rate of just 4.2 percent. Pedulla found that temporary work did not affect the callback rate.

In the study, published in the April 2016 issue of American Sociological Review as "Penalized or Protected? Gender and the Consequences of Nonstandard and Mismatched Employment Histories," Pedulla remarked, "...these results indicate that part-time work and skills underutilization are as scarring for male workers as a year of unemployment."

These results should serve as a cautionary tale to anyone considering taking a job bellow their skill level. While it might pay the bills in the short-term, it can significantly hamper one's ability to return to the relevant skill-level and pay grade at a later date. Doing so literally cuts in half your chances of getting called for an interview.

Why might this be the case? Pedulla conducted a follow-up survey with 903 people in charge of hiring at a variety of companies across the nation in order to find out. He asked them about their perceptions of applicants with each kind of employment history, and how likely they would be to recommend each kind of candidate to an interview. The results show that employers believe that men who are employed part-time or in positions below their skill level are less committed and less competent than men in other employment situations.

Those surveyed also believed that women working below their skill level were less competent than others, but did not believe them to be less committed.

Couched in the valuable insights offered by the findings of this study is a reminder of the troubling ways in which gender stereotypes shape perceptions and expectations of people in the workplace. Because part-time work is considered normal for women it has a feminine connotation, even though it is increasingly common for all people under advanced capitalism. The results of this study, which show that men are penalized for part-time work when women are not, suggest that part-time work signals a failure of masculinity among men, signaling to employers incompetence and a lack of commitment. This is a disturbing reminder that the sword of gender bias does in fact cut both ways.