Special Report Your Job

Are you committing career suicide?

Workers fear that settling for a survival job could hurt them when hiring picks up again.

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By Jessica Dickler, CNNMoney.com staff writer

john_reh.03.jpg
John Reh started walking dogs to earn some cash while he was looking for a job. Now it's his full-time gig.
A new economy, a new career
These workers are changing what they do -- or how they do it -- to get by in this economy.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The difficult job market has forced millions of workers to downgrade into a position they're overqualified for or take a survival job to make ends meet.

And while riding out the recession might be a practical strategy for now, what will become of the underemployed when the dust clears and it's time to get back on track?

There are currently 9.3 million underemployed workers limited to part-time jobs because they can't find full-time employment -- a record high, according to the Labor Department's October jobs report.

"If you are in a situation where you can't pay your bills and you are going to miss you mortgage payment and your kids need clothes for school, you are going to do what you need to do," said career expert for Glassdoor.com Rusty Rueff.

But a smaller paycheck could push you back a rung in the in salary ladder, and make it that much harder to get back to where you were.

That's exactly what Dan Juan is afraid of. Juan, 25, is a sales coordinator at a shipping company in Cincinnati, Ohio and in order to stay employed, he has had to weather three demotions over the last year and half, all with corresponding pay cuts.

"When future employers ask me what my salary was at my last job, I have to tell them that it's $34,000 instead of $42,000," he said. "I do worry that it may affect my long-term career."

Some displaced workers who were forced to take temporary positions or seasonal jobs to pay the bills also fear getting back into their field with a big gap in their résumé.

John Reh, a 35-year-old former recruiter, found himself out of work midway through last year. Despite an MBA and nearly a decade of experience recruiting mid- and senior-level executives, Reh says the only jobs available were entry level "and a solid 50% to 60% less than what I was making."

During his search, Reh started walking dogs to earn some spending cash, and as his job search went cold, he devoted more time to his pet project.

"Not many people were hiring, which means no need for recruiters," he said of the environment last year.

As time went on, Reh knew that going back to recruiting would only get harder.

"Certainly it would be a problem for some employers I'm sure," he said of the time he has spent outside the industry. But, "taking a (lower level recruiting) job that paid significantly less than what I was making was going to put a dent in my résumé anyway."

Getting back on the horse

Career experts feel that employers will be understanding about candidates straying from their chosen career path.

"Particularly in this recession, it is not going to hurt anybody to have a lower level job on their résumé," said Melanie Holmes, a vice president at employment services firm Manpower. "People need to put food on the table."

Glassdoor.com's Rueff agreed: "We're in a totally different age these days."

Even just two years ago, it might have been detrimental for workers to downgrade into a position they were overqualified for, or accept a temporary job in a field like retail, he explained, "but in today's day, a hiring manager would have to be either extremely callous or insensitive if they didn't understand a survival job."

Rueff advises job seekers to keep their skills relevant, even if it means volunteering their time. "If you were in finance, join the audit committee at your church or finance committee at your kid's school, to keep yourself current," he suggested.

And when it comes to trying to get back to your previous field, don't hide what you did in the interim, Rueff says. "Explain, I'm making ends meet but that doesn't mean I've lost any of my career aspirations."

Taking a survival job could also offer hidden opportunities. For those who always wanted to break into another industry, starting with an entry-level position could open doors.

"Taking a temp job is a great way to get hired," Holmes said. "Look for companies you want to work for or in the field you are interested in."

That's how it turned out for recruiter-come-dog walker John Reh. With the support of his wife, Erica, Reh decided to turn his dog walking gig into a full-fledged business.

Reh says that he has no plans to return to recruiting, "unless I have to."

Although he is still earning about half as much as he made before, in three years he hopes to grow his Dogs Love Running business to the point that he will earn a comparable salary to his old one.

While he was forced into the business out of necessity, it has led to an opportunity, and Reh is happy with his choice. "To me that's the story of our time," Rueff says. "If you gotta do what you gotta do, what matters is you did something." To top of page

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