At age 55 and out of full-time employment for more than a year now, Ray Owens isn’t concerned what label you put on him. Call him unemployed or underemployed, this Wichita, Kan., resident is focused on finding work that will put food on the table for his wife and their three kids ages 7, 9 and 12.

A year ago, Owens lost all three of his auto and truck repair businesses, along with more than 20 of his employees due to the sale of his garages.

“I was angry, depressed and questioning in a big way what God was doing here,” Owens told Our Sunday Visitor. To make the situation worse, he suffered a major heart attack last November that kept him out of commission for more than seven months. 

Just recently, with the help of his parish, St. Anne’s Catholic Church and its pastor, Father David Marstall, he has been able to pick up some odd jobs here and there. While it is a start, Owens says that each week is an exercise in trust. 

“This whole last year, I have had to accept my fate and the fact that I am not sure where my next paycheck is coming from,” he said. “Father David has encouraged me to let go of worry and to realize that God is in charge. And sure enough God provides; sometimes at the 11th hour.” 

Catch-22

Nearly 20 percent of U.S. workers are underemployed. Thinkstock

Owens’ acceptance of handyman jobs fits one of several popular definitions of underemployment, generally considered to mean people employed in part-time jobs when they are seeking full-time work or at jobs that are beneath their skill level or do not fulfill their economic needs. A September Gallup report found that the U.S. underemployment rate is 18.5 percent, the same level as the previous month.  

In many ways underemployment has become the new face of the American job market. It is a reality that Elizabeth Lucas hopes to overcome each day in her job in Alexandria, Va. She is co-founder of Christians Are Networking (CAN), a jobs ministry sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington. She said that the underemployed are often worse off than the unemployed, adding that there is a strong connection between the two. 

“It causes a domino effect, in my opinion,” Lucas told OSV. “The overqualified worker displaces someone who is qualified for the job. As a result, less qualified people are forced out of the job market and society has to pay as the ranks as the chronically unemployed grow.” 

In West Chester, Ohio, Deacon Jerry Barney would agree that in some ways unemployment has more to offer than underemployment. 

“Many [workers] do not take underemployment positions because unemployment checks offer a better income,” said Deacon Barney, who is pastoral associate at St. John the Evangelist Church. “The underemployed worry that their temporary, low-paying position will negatively affect their resumé because it indicates to a future employer that they may desperate and willing to accept a lower salary.” 

Building up the spirit

The deacon is part of St. John’s Career Path Ministry, which offers practical job search skills such as resumé writing, use of the Internet and networking tips. The six-week series offered throughout the year has between six and 12 participants, mostly married professional men with families. 

“Besides offering practical information, we also offer spiritual and emotional support,” Barney added. 

That spiritual support has been key to John Ivanchan’s journey to new full-time employment after he recently lost his longtime management position at a Pittsburgh restaurant. He said that after 16 years the restaurant, he felt like he had lost his identity. 

After the shock subsided, he started taking classes at a nearby employment center and started attending Helping Others Pursue Employment (HOPE) monthly workshops at St. Benedict the Abbot Church in McMurray, Pa. 

He became a regular at HOPE’s Monday Morning Coffee where he was able to share his feelings on his job loss and what to pray for and to receive support from people in the same position. 

“I have received continued support from the group,” he said. 

Ivanchan, 55, recently landed a part-time position with a food preparation company and couldn’t be more hopeful.  

“Although it is a part-time job, I feel I am with a super company that is growing at an ever expanding rate,” he told OSV. 

Parish support

That light of the end of the tunnel is at the heart of the St. Joseph Work Day Program at St. Anne’s in Wichita, which helps people to develop and demonstrate their skills in and around the community. 

“The program gives people a chance to put their skills to use and to show potential employers that they are really interested in working,” said Father Marstall, adding that from a pastoral perspective, the challenge that the underemployed face — often working a job that is beneath their ability — can be frustrating. 

“As well they often have a work schedule that changes a lot from week to week, that makes it hard for them to participate in a lot of parish activities.” 

While his job may have been taken away and his health deteriorating, Owens’ faith and trust in God has certainly deepened over the last year. He says much of this has come from his pastor and all the good people at his parish. “Father Marstall has taught to take it all to prayer and to rely on the parish.” 

Ivanchan agreed that support at the parish and the community level is key.  

“My recommendation for those who are struggling to find meaningful employment would be to seek out all the resources which are available in your community,” he told OSV. “Also having a good support structure like HOPE and the faith that God will eventually come through for you one can survive and thrive in this economy.” 

Eddie O’Neill writes from Wisconsin.