Experiment tracked the call-back rates on fictional resumes.

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Ever wonder how much taking a job below your skill level could affect your prospects for future employment?

A University of Texas sociologist has the answer for you: a lot.

“A history of skills underutilization is as scarring for workers as a year of unemployment,” according to David Pedulla, whose study on the topic appeared in April’s issue of the American Sociological Review.

Pedulla explored his interest in what he calls “labor market inequality” by developing resumes for imaginary job applicants. The job seekers he created had a few things in common. They had a college degree; worked nearly two years at their first job; and worked about 4 1/2 years at their second job.

What differed was their third job — the one Pedulla created for them for the most recent year. His imaginary workers either had a full-time job that matched their skills; a part-time job; a job through a temporary help agency; a job below their skill level; or were unemployed.

Then Pedulla submitted 2,420 resumes based on his imaginary job seekers, along with cover letters, to online ads for 1,210 real jobs. Each of the applicants had an email address and real phone number, with a voice mail account, that employers could contact if they were interested in talking with the applicant further.

The call-back rates varied widely based on how the imaginary job seeker had spent their last year. Pedulla said employer interest in his fictional applicants reflected what kind of signals the applicant’s most recent job history sent to hiring managers, including how competent they are and how committed they are to their career.

Male and female applicants who had full-time jobs the previous year were called back 10.4 percent of the time. Those whose most recent year of employment was in a job that was below their skills level were only called back about 5 percent of the time. Male applicants who had been unemployed for a year were called back 4.2 percent of the time, while unemployed females were called back 7.5 percent of the time.

The study also showed that holding a part-time position for the previous year hurt men much more than it did women. Men with a year of part-time work only were called by employers 4.8 percent of the time, about as often as employers were interested in male applicants who had worked a year in a job below their skill level. Women with part-time jobs were called back in 10.9 percent of the cases.

“Men face severe penalties for part-time work histories, but women experience no penalties,” Pedulla wrote in the study.

There are some limits about what lessons can be taken from the experiment, Pedulla cautioned.

It only measured the initial interest of employers in his fictional job candidates, not whether the employer would hire them or what they would be paid based on their most recent job experience. And he only conducted the study in five major cities, and doesn’t know whether he would have gotten the same results in smaller labor markets.

Pedulla didn’t have any marketing advice for job seekers who are currently in jobs below their skill level or unemployed.

“I’m not really in a position to make recommendations to individual workers,” he said.