The GOOD Guide to Hustlin': Advice for the Underemployed The GOOD Guide to Hustlin': Advice for the Underemployed
The GOOD Life

The GOOD Guide to Hustlin': Advice for the Underemployed

by Nona Willis Aronowitz

September 21, 2011

The official job numbers are dismal enough, but they omit a whole section of the population: those of us who are underemployed. Even though some of us have wriggled our way into our preferred profession, we’re still only working 15 hours a week or cobbling together a living through freelance gigs. Others are interns with a few bartending shifts or in dead-end, low-paying jobs for which they are overqualified. It’s almost as depressing, if less financially dangerous, as not having a job at all.

Some people certainly prefer the flexibility and freedom of contract work or a couple different jobs. If you can make it work, then by all means, be a freelancer. But  sometimes you just want the validation of a salary, a business card, and a feeling of security. Part of this is luck of the draw—being around when a spot at your workplace opens up. But there’s a way to increase the odds and make yourself indispensable, so you can finally start getting that twice-a-month paycheck.

Embrace the second shift. This may seem obvious, but rule number one is to work your ass off. It isn’t enough to be clever or have good ideas. You get noticed when you put in the extra time, too. When Trisha started working at a communications firm, she "volunteered for jobs no one else would do." Kim, who works in sales in Phoenix, says that at her part-time job, “when work ran out, I found more. I asked to learn every process someone would teach me and volunteered to help people who were overloaded in my spare time. I came in early and left late.” She was quickly promoted to a full-time staffer.

That’s not to say staying long hours at the office will get you promoted single-handedly, especially if your profession requires you to be out and about. Miriam was working as a temporary organizer at a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia when she resolved to be hired full-time after her contract was up. “But I wasn’t going to work there until 8 p.m. for no reason,” she says. “After a while, people are just waiting at their desks screwing around on the Internet, so it looks like they’re doing more work than they are.”

Miriam figured her energy could be just as well-spent outside the office. “I left right at 5:30, but I was doing work off the clock—talking to business owners in the community, having networking drinks, getting myself ‘known’ around the neighborhood,” she says. “I had a huge list of contacts in three months. So I came to my boss at the end of my tenure and essentially said, ‘This is where I’ve been and these are the people I’ve met. You need me.’”

Outside contacts aren’t the only thing you’ll need. Within your workplace, be sure to…

Make some friends. An element of competition isn’t bad, but if you make everyone resent you, it won’t ingratiate you to supervisors. Kim says that “the biggest [factor to be hired full-time] was volunteering to work on projects that made other people look good to their managers ... I created allies and internal references.”

This strategy depends on the industry—creative professions like writing or filmmaking, for instance, have more opportunity for collaboration than, say, accounting—but no matter what, you should be thinking of your company as the sum of its parts, even if your priority is to get that benefits package.

When it comes to an internship, stick around. There are tons of internships that aren’t worth it, but occasionally one can truly help you blossom. Here’s some advice: Hold onto it for dear life, especially if it’s at a new and growing company. Phil started as an intern for a fledgling real estate firm in San Francisco, and saw early on that the business was rapidly expanding. So after his four months were up, he stuck it out while moonlighting as a barback.

“Eventually they just hired me because I’d been there for a long time and knew the ropes,” he says. “I didn’t expect it to happen on its own—I definitely had a heart-to-heart with my employer a couple of times where I said, ‘I can do this, I would love to work here for real.’ But it helped a lot that I’d seen the company grow and knew what it was worth.”

Identify a few things that your coworkers don’t know, then learn them. The advantage to having a little distance from the everyday routine of a job is that you have plenty of time to determine holes. Are you working at a media company that doesn’t have a staffer with Final Cut knowledge?  Are you interning at an advocacy organization whose Twitter skills are nonexistent? Exploit that shit.

“I worked at an ad agency and did print, web, and video,” one GOOD reader wrote on our Facebook page. “I became pretty handy to have around.” Stella turned her internship into a full time gig “by being able to do everything no one else was able to do. I taught myself how to use Adobe Suite and PowerPoint like a pro and showed up anytime anyone needed help with anything.”

Channel Peggy Olsen. Sometimes, you don’t have to wait for openings at your company. If you’re really good at what you do, if your skills are unique enough, your supervisor will have no choice other than to hire you because of you and your ambitious ideas, not just because you’re next in line. Did Peggy hang around for years until Don Draper needed a new junior copywriter? No—she moonlit outside of her 9-to-5, and kicked ass at it.

A side project will not only help you determine your passions, but may even score you a promotion. That's how GOOD contributor Mac McClelland got her current position as Mother Jones’ human rights reporter. “I went to Thailand to check out this Burmese refugee situation I was curious about, and by the time I came home was obsessed with the idea of writing a book about it,” she says. “I figured that in order to write a book, it would be helpful to have contacts in publishing.” An internship at Mother Jones turned into an entry-level copy editor job, which under normal circumstances would be a tough path to any staff writer position. But the job gained Mac just enough access to pitch a story for the magazine, and the story was what got the agents calling. At that point, Mother Jones' editor-in-chief figured Mac needed a new job.

“Writing the book while I was working full-time as a copy editor was totally awful, honestly,” says Mac. “I worked nights, weekends, vacation, comp time, relentlessly, any spare time I had on that book, and it was a grueling, grueling year…But I was in it to win it and had a clear goal and clear deadlines I was determined to meet.”

Working twice as hard is a lot better than coasting at a job that underuses your skills, Mac says. “You never know what sort of opportunities your side project will create—whether in your regular job or in a new, way better one.”

Illustration by Andres Guzman

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The GOOD Guide to Hustlin': Advice for the Underemployed