One thing you should never say to someone who is underemployed

By Teresa Ruiz Decker

I was sitting at a family party last weekend catching up with aunts, cousins, and uncles when I heard someone start to recount the story of how they had a terrible day at work. Background: Most of my family members work in retail, construction, factories or other blue color jobs. Their days are vastly different than mine (i.e. time spent in front of a screen) and I always learn a great deal from their work and life experiences. This particular story struck a nerve with me and underscored the widening chasm I see between the “educated” and “uneducated” in our society. 

My family member is a head cashier at one of the largest home improvement retailers in the nation. That day, a customer got angry with one of her cashiers. This isn’t unusual and is an expected haphazard of her job in customer service — but what this customer said next shocked me.

As my family member and the cashier tried to reconcile the situation with the customer and close out the transaction, the customer started to leave but not without turning to both of them to say:

“Maybe this will teach you to get a college degree next time!”

At that moment, both the cashier and my family member were speechless. Out of all the mean-spirited things people have said to my family member, I could tell this remark left her and the other cashier deflated and humiliated. Here’s why. The cashier job is a step up in the right direction for them both. Not perfect but a step up just the same. 

Being employed at a large, well known retailer may seem like menial work to some but it’s actually meaningful work to others. 

Many times retail jobs are just the break someone needs to gain their financial footing, build their resume or find a career path. These positions, no matter how entry-level they may seem, can serve as the gateway and/or motivation underemployed individuals need to learn a new skill, receive training or increase their education (which doesn’t necessarily need to be a four-year degree). Beyond that having a job can create a sense of purpose in the world that empowers people. Do you remember the last time you were laid off? I do and it wasn’t fun. Work is a big part of our identity in the US. Being left without employment can make you feel powerless.

While I deeply believe in the power of education I also deeply recognize not everyone wants or needs to go to a four-year university. I’m relieved to see many companies and educational institutions are catching on by rebuilding their Career Education programs to prepare people for highly skilled labor jobs, designing boot camps to close the digital divide, reviving apprenticeships and innovating in the areas of tuition reimbursement and diversity recruitment programs. These efforts are gaining momentum but it’s not enough. To make better progress we need to start seeing value in the work we all do. It starts by treating people with respect and supporting those who fuel our economy with the opportunities and resources to find meaningful and sustainable work.