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Tips for the Under 30 and Underemployed

The media spotlight often shines on the unemployed, but many Americans under 30 face an equally frustrating problem—they have educations and skills but work in jobs below their earning potential. If this is you, the right combination of perseverance, optimism, and creativity can help you stick it out and eventually land the job you want.

Underemployment is Better than Unemployment

It’s easy to become depressed about being in a position below your potential. That frustration can grow if you don’t make enough to repay student loans or begin saving for your goals. In today’s tough economy, however, be grateful to have a job—any job—as there are many people who don’t. That said, don’t resign yourself to working below your potential forever; start thinking creatively about how you can take your career where you want it to go.

Set Career Goals

Make no mistake, you should never give up on your dreams to do what you really want to do in life. If you know what that is, pursue it everyday, but recognize that it may take a while to get there. If you don’t have a firm idea of where you want your career to go, start to explore different options by reading, networking, and volunteering. Try to get as many interviews you can, but don’t be discouraged if you don’t land a gig right away in the face of unprecedented competition. Use every interview as a tool to help you identify out your dream job.

Set Income Goals

There’s another reality you must face in your career search: You have to make ends meet.

You need to find a job that allows you to pay down debt, afford housing, food and transportation, and save for your future. If you’re in a lot of debt, that may mean sacrificing what you really want to do for a few years to work in a job that pays better. Another option, and one that many people choose, is to work more than one job for a while as you build financial security. It’s not fun, but it will certainly pay off down the road.

Build a Personal Brand and Sales Pitch

In addition to deciding where you want to go, it’s important to begin defining yourself as the person that deserves to get there. What makes you tick? What makes you valuable to an employer? Create a 30-to-60-second pitch that describes what you want in your career, what skills and education you possess, and what other traits you offer. Memorize it, and integrate it everywhere: your resume, your interviews, and even casual conversations you have everyday.

Keep Honing Skills

Even Ph.D.s working as waitresses (and believe me, they’re out there) can continue to hone skills (both on the job and off) that could help them land their next gigs. Sometimes, how we handle simple tasks and routine personal interactions can make the difference between being an average employee and an extraordinary one. And, yes, this goes for both low-level and highly specialized jobs.

Also, continue to hone technology skills, whatever your chosen career-path. Technology is everywhere, and the more you understand it and can use it, the more valuable you’ll be.

Network, Network, Network

Networking is not just about calling classmates and past-coworkers every six months to ask for a job. Networking can be done anytime, anyplace—you just need to casually interject your experience and your job goals into any conversation. You never know who might say: “I have just the job for you!”

Are You Under 30 and Underemployed?

What do you do, and what do you want to do? What have you tried, and what do you think you could try to get you to where you want to be? Please let me know!

Published or updated on March 31, 2009

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


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  1. Cyndi says:

    I just graduated as well and have not been able to find a real job. I have a 2 hour a day job as a office assistant but my degree was in Finance. I can’t seem to find a finance job these days. I started this website to help others get more free stuff and make a little money off the internet, but I’m desperately trying to get a real job! please check out my site and post a comment (if you’d like): http:

  2. Hi David, I think Gen Y takes a lot of flack for thinking we are underemployed. Every young person wants to work their way to the top rather quickly and often times job hop in pursuit of being more appreciated, gaining more responsibility and getting ahead. Our generation is extra ambitious and it’s important no matter how much you think you know, to keep learning everyday. if you are not in a position where you are learning, it’s time to start looking for a new place to work!

  3. Casey Donegan says:

    I graduated from Virginia Tech in 2004, and since then I have been in a perpetual state of underemployment, even homeless twice. I used to have goals as to what I want to do, but now my goals are so low as to just want forty hours a week, and not have to cook. I have been trying to go the paralegal path, but it seems my biggest obstacle there is a flood of legal interns willing to do the job of a paralegal for no money. I tried being a secretary but I ran into the same thing. Kind of hard to network when even the bottom rung jobs, are now just internships.

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