Professional Reserve Armies: Underemployment and Labor Degradation in Professional Occupations

Brynne VanHettinga, Walden University


While various academic disciplines have recognized the phenomenon of underemployment, it is not being captured in official labor statistics, in part due to a lack of consensus about definition and measurement. The purpose of this study was to document the extent of underemployment in professional occupations and propose an analytic framework to examine labor market disutility. Guided by the paradigm clash of human capital theory and labor degradation theory, this sequential mixed methods study described underemployment in the STEM, health care, law, and academic professions, and compared these to existing measures of underemployment. Internet-based surveys were distributed through a commercial panel provider (494 surveys) and 5 participating professional organizations (102 surveys). Statistical profiles were constructed of a representative respondent in each professional category using percentage distributions for specific occupation and type of school. Qualitative data were collected through 5 semi-structured interviews conducted with 2 STEM professionals, 2 practicing attorneys, and a college instructor. Qualitative data were coded using both deductive reasoning, using categories established by the quantitative data, and through inductive analyses, which confirmed and expanded upon the quantitative findings. Key findings indicated that professionals with post-graduate degrees are subject to job market deficiencies similar to those of workers lower in the labor hierarchy, suggesting that labor degradation theory is an appropriate framework to analyze underemployment. The social change implications of this study include recommendations for improved U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics measures of underemployment, and workforce development policies that focus on whether jobs are meeting the needs of workers and society.