All is not as rosy as it seems with the UK’s employment stats, a 24 April Business Insider article has stressed. Homing in on some number crunching from Citi Research – which harnessed data from the Office for National Statistics – the piece highlights the growing concern of underemployment: people being simply unable to find a job with full time hours, or a combination of part-time roles that could add up to full time.

While the UK’s overall employment figure of 32.2 million in work is the highest since records began in 1971, and the 4.2% unemployment figure is also strong, those numbers mask the extent of underemployment.

As the article notes: “The portion of people on zero-hours contracts … has more than doubled. The number of underemployed has increased by roughly half.” According to the piece, Citi’s take on the data suggests “that chronic underemployment has replaced the role outright joblessness used to play in the labour market, and that the major dynamic of inequality in Britain today is the divide between those with full-time jobs and workers stuck in the poorly paid gig economy”.

Interestingly, underemployment presents some serious issues for career progression: two years ago, University of Texas researcher David Pedulla carried out a test in which he filed 2,420 fictitious applications across 1,210 real job openings. The feedback provided Pedulla with “compelling evidence that taking a job below one’s skill level is quite penalising, regardless of one’s gender”.

He noted that “part-time work severely hurts the job prospects of men”, while hiring managers broadly regard female part-timers as less competent than their full-time counterparts.

With those hurdles in mind, what can well-qualified, but underemployed, people who are eager to progress do to get out of the rut? And what can leaders do to ensure that this talent pool doesn’t go to waste?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “This follows on very neatly from some of our recent blogs on the gender pay gap: a job should attract a particular rate, irrespective of the person who’s doing it – and whether you’re doing something for 20 hours of the week or 40 hours of the week should not impact upon the value that’s attached to that specific job.

“Secondly, I think that underemployment provides us with insights into the UK’s long-running productivity problems. One reason why the UK is an attractive place for employers is because our employee-protection laws aren’t as strong as those in many of the European countries that are out-competing us. The casualisation of labour through such means as zero-hours contracts is indicative of that: people are getting work – but is it meaningful work? Is it work that they can rely upon? And does it pay fairly?”

Cooper points out: “for underemployed individuals, there are definitely resources that will help them to learn new things and develop their talents, particularly online. There are so many MOOCs out there, and even the Institute’s website contains a significant amount of helpful information that can be accessed without committing to the full membership fee. People are able to take advantage of web-based learning resources and skills tutorials in ways that they wouldn’t as recently as 10 or 15 years ago.”

Turning to the question of what senior figures can do, she notes: “it’s important that when leaders are making recruitment or promotion decisions, they have the courage to consider all the possible variations of who could do the job and what it takes to do the job – and to apply a real 21st Century, flexible-working mindset to the process of imagining who they may want. As the fascinating University of Texas research shows, the application process does tend to leave disadvantaged groups out in the cold through prejudice and bias.

“But if leaders are wilfully narrowing their own talent pools, it’s hardly surprising that we often hear talk of a talent shortage.”

For further thoughts on talent development, check out these learning resources from the Institute