Education, aspiration don't always add up to better job
Mahomet man's experience is illustrative of the underemployment problem facing many in the U.S.
MAHOMET — Sitting in front of a computer screen, Jason Lamb's face brightens as he comes across a job ad for managing a costume jewelry store.
"Here's an opening at Claire's. Cassidy would love it if I worked there," he said, referring to his 10-year-old stepdaughter.
This is a familiar position for Lamb — sitting before the computer at his in-laws' house or looking over the newspaper at his kitchen table scouring want ads, often late at night.
Since last May he has submitted his resume or filled out applications for dozens and dozens of jobs: customer service at call centers; assistant manager positions at stores; bookkeeping at physician offices; entry-level accounting.
So far he's had two interviews.
After 20-some years of working for a few dollars an hour above minimum wage at fast-food restaurants or retail stores, Lamb went back to college to earn an associate's degree in accounting and business management. He got that, and now he's one semester away from finishing his bachelor's degree in liberal arts.
"There's been times when I've stayed up all night, wondering if it's worth it," he said.
On those nights, usually before the sun comes up, his wife will come into the kitchen and say, "It's time to go to bed, Jason."
"He doesn't give himself enough credit," said his wife, Megan Lamb. He doesn't say, "look at what I've accomplished."
"But I haven't accomplished much. I haven't gotten a job yet. When that happens, then I can say I've accomplished something," he said.
Jason Lamb does have a job. It's stocking the dairy cases at Meijer in Champaign, and he works there 24 hours a week for about $11.25 an hour.
"It's a good chunk of change," he said.
But it's part-time work, without benefits. And now that he has an associate's degree in business, he wants to use more of his skills, such as marketing, spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations.
The 'invisible crisis'
Lamb is in the middle of what Jane Oates, formerly the assistant secretary for employment and training in the U.S. Department of Labor, called the "invisible crisis" at an event examining underemployment in the U.S. earlier this year.
"We know it's there, that it's a problem," and especially in the Midwest, said University of Illinois economist Geoffrey Hewings. But unlike unemployment rates, which are tracked and monitored by state and federal agencies, there is no body that gathers hard data on underemployment, he said.
Hewings did point to a underemployment rate tracked by Gallup that combines the percentage of adults in the workforce who are unemployed with the percentage of those working part-time but looking for full-time work. In June, the Gallup underemployment rate for the U.S. was 17.2 percent, down from 18 percent in May and down from 17.5 percent from June 2012.
That rate only considers part-time workers wanting full-time work, but Hewings said underemployment also can include people who are overqualified for the positions they are holding — Ph.D. graduates driving taxi cabs, business school graduates serving burgers — not because they choose to, but because they haven't been able to find the jobs they prefer.
A lot of information about the underemployed is anecdotal, Hewings said; there's also a lack of data on the reasons behind underemployment. One reason could be a mismatch in the skills workers have and what skills employers want, he said.
Where there are a lot of underemployed workers, there are opportunity costs for society, Hewings said.
"When people are not getting high wages, they're not spending as much and there's a negative ripple effect," he said. Employers who may not find the skilled workers they need could relocate elsewhere.
The Gallup rate may show the tip of the iceberg, "but we're not sure how big the tip is, or how big the iceberg is," said Hewings, who directs the UI's Regional Economics Applications Laboratory.
Born and raised in Farmer City, Lamb graduated from Blue Ridge High School in 1990. He said he always intended to go to college. But after his father, a diabetic, became blind, Jason stepped in to help run his father's bar, the Wagon Wheel in Farmer City. Later, his father, who did not have health insurance, was diagnosed with skin cancer. Lamb continued to care for his father and when his father died in 1994, helped pay for his burial.
"What plans I had for college quickly disappeared," Lamb said.
Twenty years passed quickly. He moved to Mahomet, worked at McDonald's in Champaign, at Best Buy and Meijer.
In 2008, he married Megan and became a stepfather to two girls. Megan Lamb's life has not been without struggles — her first two husbands died and she was a single mother working seasonally at a tax preparer's office. When Lambs' oldest stepdaughter, Jessica, was in junior high school, he told her how important it was to study, to lay the building blocks for high school, which would then set her on the path to college.
"She asked, 'Why do I have to go to college? You didn't. Why should I?'" Lamb recalls.
They made an agreement: "If I go to college, you will too," he said.
He started at Parkland in 2010 and graduated in May 2012 with an associate's degree and a grade point average of 3.86. This December, he'll receive a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from Eastern Illinois University through its partnership with Parkland.
At Parkland he's received financial aid, such as state Monetary Award Program grants and federal Pell grants, and has about $6,000 in student loan debt. His goal is to have that paid off by the time Jessica goes off to college in about two years.
"I don't want her to go through in 20 years what I'm going through," he said, about struggling to find a better job.
A family man
When he was growing up, Lamb said, his father worked long hours, often sleeping on the couch in the living room. Aside from a hour or so in the morning before he left for school, Sunday was the only day he saw his father. Lamb said he wants a full-time Monday through Friday day job so he can be with his family in the evenings to grill hot dogs and help his youngest daughter with her homework.
They make do. They clip coupons like many people, and Lamb keeps track of their spending. Near his bedside table sits a spiral-bound, college-ruled notebook filled with notations: $20 bill taken out for groceries, $10.56 cash back.
They allow themselves some luxuries — an Internet connection mainly — and said they are grateful to Megan's parents who live nearby and have them over for meals and laundry.
They haven't taken a vacation in four years, and when Lamb is done with his school and finds a full-time job, he wants to take them somewhere, maybe Florida.
But his wife said she "would take a college degree over a trip to Florida any day."
"It's frustrating. Not only am I competing for jobs with graduates from UI, who are half my age, but people who have been unemployed for the last year," Lamb said.
What's also frustrating, he said, is not hearing back from potential employers, not knowing if they received his resume or application, why he was or wasn't considered for the job.
"I am amazed at the strength he has to persevere, to continue despite rejection, rejection, rejection. Yet he sucks it up everyday," his wife said.
"It's got to be worth it," Lamb said. "My degree has got to pay off. I want them to have a life better than me. I don't want (my daughters) to be working until they're 70 years old."