Updated on 08.30.11


Trent Hamm

About twelve years ago, I had a job as a computer lab monitor at the college I attended.

The job was easy. All I had to do was go to that room during designated hours, sit at a particular desk, and answer user questions, along with a few other minor tasks such as reloading printer paper and changing print cartridges. The vast majority of the questions were very basic.

This left me with quite a bit of time where I wasn’t really doing anything but filling space.

Those hours – and there were many of them – are actually one of the biggest regrets I have of my college years.

I spent a lot of that time just sitting there web surfing. Occasionally, I’d dig into a homework assignment. Once in a while, I’d read a paperback. More than a few times, I stared at the wall and the clock.

I was underemployed, in other words. While there was a need for someone to be sitting in that seat, most of the time there wasn’t enough actual work for me to be doing.

I’m not alone in this. One of my closest friends used to work the graveyard shift as a convenience store clerk. She said that customers would come in at a rate of about three an hour during the night and she spent most of her time staring out the window or moving bags of potato chips around aimlessly. She usually had a nighttime checklist of things to accomplish, but those tasks were usually out of the way in the first two or three hours of her shift.

In each of our cases, we wasted our underemployment. Instead of taking advantage of open time where we’re actually being paid to just sit there and use that time for some sort of self-improvement, we just wasted that time.

I would give almost anything to have all of those wasted hours back. Those hours held the key to a lot of different potential avenues in my life.

Here are four incredibly useful distinct things you can be doing if you find yourself in an underemployed situation.

Look for useful things to do
There are always things that can be cleaned or organized better. There are always procedures that can be improved a little bit. There are always things that can be documented.

Sure, one might argue that these things aren’t really your job. And you’d be right. That’s not the point of doing them, though.

The reason to do them is twofold. First, you’re being paid to do something, not just sit there. You are earning money for your time there, so you might as well do something with it. Second, doing things like this earns you positive attention at work from your supervisor, which can help a lot if you’re in an emergency situation or if you’re hoping for a raise or a promotion down the road.

Improve your skills for this job
What skills are on display at this job? Communication skills with customers? Efficiency at making food or pouring drinks? Techniques for the technical field you’re involved with? Can these things be practiced or improved upon?

There are always ways to work on the skills you use in the workplace. Working on those skills when times are slow is a sure way to make sure the job goes much more smoothly when times are busy. Plus, an effective employee is one that stays around and is often in line for promotions and raises.

Prepare for your next career step
If this job is a jumping-off point, use your idle time to prepare for whatever it is that comes next.

There are a multitude of things you can do in this regard. Put in some extra studying time for a class. Work on that novel you’ve always wanted to write. Investigate a topic area you’ve always been curious about. Polish up your resume. Find leads on new jobs.

Improve yourself
If all of those fail, you can always spend the time there improving yourself. I know one person who used to take a barbell to work with him and do various exercises with it during downtime to build up his arms and shoulders. You can always take and read a challenging book – one that forces you to think deeply about the world in some way. Perhaps you can spend some time writing a handwritten letter to someone you care deeply about. The key here is to leave work a better person in some fashion than when you arrived.

Underemployment doesn’t have to mean idleness. In fact, it usually means opportunity.

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  1. krantcents says:

    Many times when faced with an easy job or you are underemployed, we meet expectations and do nothing. It is a great idea to use the time well, by acquiring additional skills. I think you have to be self motivated.

  2. chuck says:

    i had a job like that once. working at a gas station. the station had the highest prices in town and was located in an out of the way place. there were very few customers so i treated the job as one long smoke break. station eventually went out of business. sorry but working hard there wasn’t going to get me or the business anywhere as it is an empty lot today. well sort of empty. the tanks leaked so it needs hazmat cleanup.

  3. arvin says:

    The scenario you describe is totally real and your suggestions are totally valid, Trent, but doesn’t the common usage for underemployment (at least currently) refer to people who, despite looking for and desiring full time employment, can only find part-time work? You might end up confusing people.

  4. Tracy says:

    I was basically going to say what Arvin did – what you are describing is not underemployment.

    It’s a specific situation where someone has a job, but it’s not a job that’s … sufficient. Either, as Arvin mentions, part-time work when they are seeking full-time work, or when the only job they can find is one that they’re wildly overqualified for (for example, an engineer working retail or stocking shelves) – and usually not by choice.

  5. Steve says:

    I had the same job (lab monitor) in college. I don’t regret it at all; not one iota. Instead of looking at it as a lost opportunity, I look at it as getting paid to do whatever I would have done anyways. Sometimes that was homework projects and sometimes it was web surfing and sometimes it was video games.

  6. Carole says:

    Trent you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself for wasting time then. You learned something and from what I understand, today, you usually make the most of your time. We all need to goof off some of the time, tho.

  7. Lesley says:

    As others have pointed out, what you describe is NOT underemployment. Underemployment is a pervasive issue affecting hundreds of thousands of workers in the U.S. Underemployment means being unable to find fulltime work or work equivalent to your qualifications or experience. What you describe is being bored at work–which is totally different. Please pay more attention to the words you choose.

  8. Becky says:

    I had a job as a receptionist/administrative assistant at a small company. Despite nice co-workiers, the work itself was stressful AND boring and completely not suited to my personality. I routinely had to cry in my car in the parking lot for a few minutes before steeling myself to walk in the front door and start my work day. Despite a college degree, I had few actual skills, so I took community college glasses at night in desktop publishing and techincal writing, then used the boring parts of my job to redo all the company’s report & Standard Operating Procedure templates. This solid demonstration of my skills, initiative, and interests got me moved off the front desk into a support job for the sales & marketing department, which saved my sanity.

    I find that if you have to take a job with lots of inactive time in an industry you’re interested in, it’s better to get one at a small company than a large one. (I know not everybody has the choice, but if you do…) Small companies often have undone work and unoccupied niches, and short enough chains of command, that you can do something that interests you and create a better job for yourself without having to fight a lot of bureaucracy in the process.

    Similar jobs at big companies are better for working on “extracurricular” activities – studying non-work-related material, writing, reading, etc. A small-business owner might have a heart attack if he sees an hourly employee not benefiting the company while on the clock. A low-level manager at a big company is less likely to care.

  9. almost there says:

    I too echo previous comments. Trent if you want to be a writer instead of just a blogger that puts out slipshod work without thinking of what you write. Edit before posting. What you’re describing is being under utilized. Of course most work is like that. Think of fire and police personnel. Lots of down time but when it is game time they work. Heck, when I first started as a utility plant operator working 12 hour shifts I had to be told to take it easy. The boss said that we were like firemen, paid to be there and respond to changes in the plant but not to be doing busy work the whole shift. Of course, later he would get wild hares and make us take mops to hot equipment as an attempt to clean up dirt which ended up making mud.

  10. Brittany says:

    I think “Underutilized Employment” is a more appropriate term than “Underemployment,” which has a more specific meaning, as others have pointed out. These are good suggestions, but all (but #1) assume you’re /allowed/ to do something else when you’re on the clock. When I was a cashier, the most mind-numbingly dull job I’ve ever held, I wasn’t allowed to do anything by stand behind the counter, even if the store was completely empty. Sometimes I organized/cleaned up the front area (a type of #1), but even this was discouraged if I had to go in front of the counter. Sometimes I played in the register system to try to figure out how to do things more efficiently (never had any formal training on it), but a) I had to be careful not to do anything only a manager id could get me out of and b) there was only so much potential there. Occasionally, I “cheated” by doing low-key written tasks on scrap paper (to do lists, mental games, practicing translating sentences into a foreign language), keeping it hidden beneath the counter. I never got in trouble for it, but it was explicitly not allow. I have friends who had a similar desk monitor jobs, in building lobbies, who were also not suppose to do /anything/ but sit there, watch, and wait for something to happen. Unfortunately, not all employers are reasonable with making the most of underutilized time.

  11. Laura in Seattle says:

    From Dictionary.com:

    1. employed at a job that does not fully use one’s skills or abilities.
    2. employed only part-time when one is available for full-time work.
    3. not utilized fully.
    4. underemployed workers collectively.

    Apparently Trent’s definition is also correct.

    By all means complain if someone misuses a word, but it’s always a good idea to check and make sure that it’s actually being misused BEFORE you complain and waste everyone’s time.

  12. Tracy says:

    @Laura in Seattle

    How does that make Trent’s definition correct? What part do you think applies to his being bored at work?

  13. Lesley says:

    That’s underemployed, not underemployment, and depends on which dictionary you use–so we could go back and forth all day. I’ll apologize. You are correct that there is a lesser used definition where Trent was correct.

    However, it’s not the standard definition of the word, and as a title it’s unclear (and apparently that annoys a bunch of us).

  14. BJD says:

    Brittany #10 points out the key assumption that limits Trent’s good suggestions — so many of these jobs don’t allow you to do something else when you’re on the clock.

  15. jim says:

    I also had that lab monitor job in college too. It was great. I got paid to sit and do my homework, web surf or talk to coworkers and occasionally I had tell someone how to export a file or show them how to log into email. It paid relatively well too if I recall right and it had flexible hours. It was really a great job to have in college.

    Most people thinking of underemployment are talking about people who want full time work but can only get part time OR people who are overqualified for their jobs and can’t get anything equal to their qualification level.

    But I think Brittany IS right that Trents usage is correct and a 3rd definition of underemployment is jobs that underutilize staff. I don’t think this 3rd and rarely used definition of underemployment like Trent is talking about is nearly as bad as the other more common usages.

  16. Allie says:

    *sigh* Tried to post this from work, it got stuck in moderation, so, trying from home.

    “Work with a lot of downtime” is not necessarily what I think of when I think of “underemployment” – to me, that word means work that you are heavily overqualified for (which does not necessarily mean it entrails a lot of downtime), or insufficient hours as compared to what you need or desire (typically part time vs. full time). You seem to be defining it here, as “work in which you are under-engaged.” Am I misunderstanding the way in which this word is commonly used, or is Trent redefining words at will again?

  17. Cortney says:

    Sadly, many jobs that have a lot of downtime are also the kind of jobs where you can’t do things like bring a book. For example, I worked full time at a call center for about two years. My job was to stay logged into my phone, always available for a call. I was expected to answer within two rings. I brought my crocheting to work, so that in the minutes- usually only about two- in between phone calls I could be doing something instead of wasting the time. I never missed a call, always exceeded expectations with quality, and never had a complaint filed against me. Yet I was told to ditch the crocheting- and the book I sometimes read- because I was wasting time. No, seriously, that’s what they told me. When my job was to remain chained constantly to my desk, and I was not slipping in that job at all. And I couldn’t do anything else anyway- doing any kind of special project entailed getting permission and being put off the phones so you could focus on it. I’ve known a lot of people that work in call centers like this, and they’ve all had the same experience. Strangely, this even applied to reading business books in classes that the company was paying for me to take so that I could be a better worker. So glad I’m out of that game.

  18. valleycat1 says:

    #16 – Allie – actually Trent’s use here is the last definition in the dictionaries I’ve checked today. So although not what most people these days think when they see the word, he technically is correct.

    After 25+ years of working in demanding & engaging jobs, I’m enjoying my most recent one with good pay (for our area of the country) & great benefits, even though I am not particularly challenged the entire day. I have mental & physical energy left (& no job responsibilities) after hours to enjoy my personal life.

  19. Cheryl says:

    I had a job in college minding a laundromat. Someone had to be there to give change and prevent vandalism. The only other required tasks were to mop the floor at closing and wash a few loads of Goodwill clothes. The owner had no problem with me doing homework the rest of the time. Easy money.

  20. Cheryl says:

    My dad always told me never to let a customer find me doing nothing. Clean the counters, look busy even if there isn’t anything to do. Someone had to be there to give back the orders.

  21. Dan W. says:

    You’re right about underemployment=opportunities. I was underemployed once a few years after uni but failed to take that as a period of self-examination. Looking back, I know I could’ve done more than being idle.

  22. Kim says:

    Underemployment is my daughter who has 2 master’s degrees, including an MBA, who is working part-time at a pizza restaurant because she can’t find a job. Your college job would sound pretty good to her even now! You are often very out-of-touch with the “real world” Trent.

  23. Jonathan says:

    As Laura in Seattle pointed out, Trent’s usage of the term underemployment here is accurate, even if its not the most current usage. One of the meanings of the term is “…the practice in which businesses employ workers who are not fully occupied…” Maybe Trent should have realized that most people associate only the most common definition with the word. On the other hand, those who think he misused it could have easily found the full definition(s) with a quick web-search, rather than assuming he was wrong.

  24. Although it’s always best to have some form of revenue, one of the biggest problems with being underemployed during your career is that it could harm your future earnings for as long as a decade. All the more reason why you should try and better yourself during the time spent working, if you can.

  25. Kevin says:

    I love it when people claim that the dictionary isn’t the “standard” definition of a word, as though the good people at Merriam-Webster are in the business of making up random definitions with no basis in actual reality.

    Should we instead trust the eloquent wordsmiths who brought us such innovative linquistic evolutions as “I can haz cheeseburger?” Or the blog-swarming masses who don’t know the difference between “then” and “than,” or “lose” and “loose?”

    Sorry, I’m sticking with MW. You guys blew it in attacking Trent. He used an accurate definition. You’re all over him like a bear on honey when he screws up – now man up, take your medicine, and admit you made a mistake yourself.

  26. Gretchen says:

    This all could have been avoided with a mention of the current, common usage of the word.

    You can be totally out of touch with the real world, Trent.

  27. Jessica says:

    Unfortunately I work in a job where we don’t have enough work to keep us busy non-stop, but the unwritten rule is we don’t acknowledge it. We’re also not supposed to do non-work either, like using the internet or reading.

  28. Brittany says:

    Actually, the definition is “employed at a job that does not fully use one’s skills or abilities,” as was already quoted, not “employed as a job using one’s skills and abilities (in this case, with computers), but at which you occasionally have downtime or are bored.” Having downtime as a computer lab monitor when you’re an undergrad still developing your skills, with no professional experience or certifications, means you have utilized time at work. This is NOT the same thing as being underemployed. A lab monitor is basically “on call”–he/she is there to provide help (using the range of skills/abilities/knowledge) as needed, and to wait when help is not needed.

    Now, if you has a degree in computer science/programming and were still working in a minimal-knowledge-demanding lab monitor job, THEN you would be underemployed.

    Am I missing something? How is “not fully using one’s skills and abilities” throughout the course of one’s work duties the same as “having a job that uses these skills but also has downtime”? Would we say firefighters are underemployed because they may only be actually fighting fires (and training) during a small sliver of their work hours a week?

  29. Brittany says:

    Typo– “Having downtime as a computer lab monitor when you’re an undergrad still developing your skills, with no professional experience or certifications, means you have UNDERutilized time at work.”

  30. Johanna says:

    If you’re missing something, Brittany, then I am too. This isn’t the first time Trent’s equated “low-level job” with “job where you’re paid to sit around and do nothing.” I’m kind of surprised that so many people are agreeing with him this time.

    As for the jobs that some people have mentioned where there’s a lot of down time but you’re not allowed to do something else like read or study, I kind of get that. I really hate it when I have to ask for someone’s help (in the computer lab, library, convenience store, or whatever) and they give me the stink eye because I’m interrupting their very important study session by asking them to do the thing that they’re actually getting paid to do. I’m not sure that forcing the employees to sit and stare off into space is any better, but if this is the kind of thing the employers are trying to avoid, I think they mean well.

  31. Dee says:

    Underemployment can refer to:

    “Overqualification” or “overeducation”, or the employment of workers with high education, skill levels, and/or experience in jobs that do not require such abilities.[2] For example, a trained medical doctor who works as a taxi driver would experience this type of underemployment.
    “Involuntary part-time” work, where workers who could (and would like to) be working for a full work-week can only find part-time work. By extension, the term is also used in regional planning to describe regions where economic activity rates are unusually low, due to a lack of job opportunities, training opportunities, or due to a lack of services such as childcare and public transportation.
    “Overstaffing” or “hidden unemployment” (also called “labor hoarding”[3]), the practice in which businesses or entire economies employ workers who are not fully occupied—for example, workers currently not being used to produce goods or services due to legal or social restrictions or because the work is highly seasonal.

  32. Tracy says:

    “The third definition of “underemployment” describes a polar opposite phenomenon: to some economists, the term refers to “overstaffing” or “hidden unemployment,” the practice of businesses or entire economies employing workers who are not fully occupied i.e. who are currently not being used to produce goods or services (in other words, employees who are not economically productive, or underproductive, or economically inefficient). This may be because of legal or social restrictions on firing and lay-offs (e.g. union rules requiring managers to make a case to fire a worker or spend time and money fighting the union) or because they are overhead workers, or because the work is highly seasonal (which is the case in accounting firms focusing on tax preparation, as well as agriculture).

    This kind of underemployment does not refer to the kind of non-work time done by, for instance, firefighters or lifeguards, who spend a lot of their time waiting and watching for emergency or rescue work to do; this kind of activity is necessary to ensure that if (e.g.) three fires occur at once, there are sufficient firefighters available.”

    Or, in Trent’s case, as a lab monitor, where he is there in case he IS needed because there is a computer problem or emergency.

    Again, what he is describing is NOT UNDEREMPLOYMENT.

  33. When I was in college I worked part time as a security guard. It was about the most mindless job you can imagine, especially the off hours shift. About 30 minutes worth of “work” was crammed into each eight hour shift. Most of us found other, productive things to do with the massive amounts of downtime.

    Since I was a student (as were many guards) I used the time to do homework. This was an advantage on two fronts. First, it was as if I was being paid to do my homework. Second, because I was combining work and school, the job didn’t interfere with school. I could work 24 hours in one week, or 48 hours, and it blended just fine.

    An older guy who was an insurance salesman held the job so he could get paid to do paperwork! Since he was on commission, getting paid on the security job meant he made money while he filled out forms for his business.

    Yes, we were underemployed, but we were using the time for greater purposes. That job really helped me get through college!

  34. Rachel says:

    Great post! I work in this type of job, and I manage to do most of the things suggested. However, I also spend a fair amount of time on Facebook, blog reading, and Internet searching.

    As for Johanna’s comment (#30), it’s very unprofessional to give someone the stink eye. One should definitely put on a good front. In my job, I don’t have anyone to relieve me completely for lunch, so I eat at my desk. It is rather annoying to get up 3 or 4 times to help someone when I’m eating, but it’s the fault of my organization (for not providing me a back-up to cover my lunch break), not the customer. I may not look thrilled to help someone in this situation, but I try to always be polite and professional.

  35. DivaJean says:

    For heavens sake Trent! You are driving us buggy with the lesser used definition as a title. Just change the name of this post to “Downtime” or something like that and put the stupid debate to rest.

  36. Steven says:

    You have a lot of regrets, Trent. I wonder if someday you’ll look back at today and have regrets…

  37. Johanna says:

    @Rachel: Yes, of course it’s unprofessional. But I’m inclined to think that someone who takes a job with a lot of downtime precisely *because* it has a lot of downtime is not necessarily going to be motivated by a desire to look professional. And especially when they start thinking of time on the job as their own time, to study or read or play games, they may start to feel resentful of the customers for taking that time away from them, and that resentment may show through whether they want it to or not.

  38. Pam Munro says:

    The only downside here is if you get CAUGHT doing nothing on such a job – which, if you have mean bosses, can mean you HAVE no JOB. I lost a promo job for sitting down on a stool that had been provided for me while waiting for an extensiuon cord. On temp jobs when there was “nothing” to do but wait for the phone, I read a lot & journaled. Was that wasted time? No. I was making money by subtly doing my job – waiting for the phone. Actually, pretending you are working when you are not is harder than you think.

  39. Georgia says:

    My first 2 weeks as a federal employee at a new job I had to look busy while doing nothing. I was hired in the busiest time of the year and no one had the time to train me for those 2 weeks. So my boss said to look as busy as possible.

    I solved it by doing a lot of typing. I had done very little typing and this was only the 2nd job I did need to type. This new job had electric typewriters, which I had never used. This was in 1963. By the time work had slowed down and they had time to acclimate me to my job, I had my typing skills set up. Boy, was I glad I did.

  40. kristine says:

    I will never forget my most interesting experience w/ downtime- tough it was not at work. I was being treated for a severe burn, and had to sit in a hyperbaric chamber for a very long time every day, in a white sealed spacesuit with pure oxygen being pumped into it. It was exactly like sitting in a tiny submarine. I was in grad school at the time, and managed to keep with my assignments by reading/writing in the chamber. Most people slept, or daydreamed, but I was the least injured. Even the morphine was no match for pure oxygen! I read fast, retained absolutely everything, and my mental clarity and speed was the best it has ever been. I wrote brilliant projects in half the time it would normally take. I wish I had an oxygen bar in my house!

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