‘Overqualified’ workers struggle to find work, employers fear they’ll flee

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On more than one occasion we’ve discussed the label of “overqualified” for workers who have the experience and education that theoretically qualifies them for higher ranking jobs than the ones they currently hold or are applying to. Job seekers have repeatedly explained that they don’t care. When you need a job, you need a job – otherwise you wouldn’t be applying.

That doesn’t stop some employers from having qualms about hiring workers who hold a master’s degree when only a high school diploma is necessary. Or when they see an applicant who’s been in the industry for 15 years but the position is closer to a go-fer role than a managerial one, they wonder, “How long will you stick around?” One recent survey we reported on found that 43 percent of employers fear their top talent will run out of the door the moment the economy improves.

Employers are worried about the future and workers are worried about the present.

That’s why two articles recently caught my attention. The first, a Washington Post story by Ian Shapira looked at a staff in training at a newly opened IHOP restaurant. The introductory paragraph gives a glimpse of the caliber of workers who applied to the restaurants positions:

“One woman was a clerk at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, another assisted clients at a tax prep firm, and another spent the summer canvassing for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s re-election campaign. ‘I speak Spanish well,’ wrote one woman, noting that she was also a choreographer at a dance school.”

A snapshot of today’s job climate can be seen by the fact that 500 people applied and only 120 positions were available. And, Shapira writes, these highly qualified and experienced workers, while grateful to have a job, struggle with their new roles. Balancing the necessity of a job, a lower professional status and the everyday demands in their personal lives is not simple. The new employees, who are restless with the restaurants set of rules and demands, which differ significantly from some of those of their previous workplaces, do have their eyes on better things down the road.

One employee sums up the dilemma that these workers face and that employers might not realize:

“’I’m grateful to be here,’ she said. ‘When I get frustrated, it’s this sense I want something bigger. I want vacations. And vacation homes and a house connected to the ocean. I keep thinking, will I ever reach that?’”

Yes, these “overqualified” workers, like the one above, are hoping to eventually move on to jobs that are bigger and, in their minds, better. But what worker isn’t hoping to ascend his or her respective industry’s ladder? Would you hire someone who had no ambition and was thrilled to maintain the status quo? What would you think of someone if you asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and the response was, “Hopefully in the exact same position I am right now”?

Meanwhile, in the Wall Street Journal, an article by Joe Light warns employers that their top performers will see an improving economy as a signal to find a job that better suits them. Light explains:

“Overall, turnover remains low but is inching up. When adjusted for seasonality, the percentage of total employees who voluntarily quit their jobs in September was 1.6 percent, up from 1.3 percent in September last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Management watchers say those low rates mask a risk of future defections, and that many companies may be caught off guard when the labor market improves more robustly.”

Now, put these two articles side by side and the idea of the workplace teeming with highly skilled workers itching to jump ship makes sense. But consider that the unemployment rate for the past several months has remained below 10 percent, which is a nice change, but it’s still well above 9 percent. Although the economy does seem to be improving cautiously, how robustly would it need to recover in order to send all of these workers out the door? After the mass layoffs in 2008 and 2009 (and 2010 for some employees), workers are probably cautious about leaving a job they fought hard to land. Hypothetically, if every underemployed worker hits the job market again, the competition will continue to be fierce.

This isn’t to say that some workers won’t leave and that many workers don’t wish they could return to their previous salaries and ranks. But, as the Washington Post article proves, workers are willing to put in hard work to climb the ladder again.

For job seekers who fear they will be seen as overqualified by employers, keep these tips in mind when preparing your application materials and interviewing:

1. “Where do you want to be in five years?”

When answering this question, show your ambition, but keep it in line with the organization’s structure. If you’re applying for an entry-level position, express your desire to eventually reach a management or supervisory level. Don’t describe your ideal job in a completely different industry that has no relation to this company.

2. Connect your experience and skills with this job

In your cover letter, résumé and interview, show how your background makes you the right candidate for this job. If you show the correlation between your work history and the job requirements, you can look like the ideal candidate instead of one that has “too much experience.”

3. Decide how you want to present your experience

Some job seekers opt to leave off their graduate degrees if a bachelor’s or high school diploma is required. Others only list the most recent and relevant experience. Others don’t omit any of this and hope they don’t scare off an employer. Deciding what to exclude and include is a personal choice that each job seeker has to make. Understandably, leaving off a college degree can be a tough move because you worked hard and spent a lot of money on it, so do what’s right for you.

4. Confront the issue

If the interviewer asks if you have reservations about the role, don’t balk at the idea. Insincerity such as “It never occurred to me!” won’t get you far. Be honest and say that you wouldn’t have applied for the job if you didn’t want it and think you could succeed at it. Plus, everyone can learn something new from any job. Admit that, yes, you know a lot but you’re also open to learning new things, too.

If you’ve been in this position before, how did you handle it and what advice do you have for other job seekers looking to calm interviewers’ fears that they’ll be leaving soon?

  1. Loyalty has to be earned by being reciprocal. Why shouldn’t people leave for greener pastures when at any moment they could be laid off or downsized if they stay put? Those rare companies with no lay-off policies probably are able to retain lower rates of turnover, even for their overqualified employees. Having a path up the ladder WITHIN your company helps too. If there’s a way to move up AND employees are sure they won’t lose a job through no fault of their own, even the overqualified would be highly motivated to stay put.

    • I was unemployed for 22 months. I had to move out of state (and then it took me another 5 months to find a job). The job i found turned me down the first time b/c they wanted a 3 year commitment and i have a graduate degree. They kept asking me why i would want this job (administrative assistant). I’ve found it’s too uncomfortable (and most employers are not really willing to be this honest) to say: I’m desperate, i have .04 in my bank account, I NEED this job. They hired someone else who didn’t work out and hired me two months later (compromise 1 year commitment). I was advised to take off my graduate degree from my resume, but then how would i explain 2 missing years from my resume (when i was not allowed to “work” outside the university setting)?. I’ve had enthusiastic people turn me down for interviews b/c i’ve been “out of work too long” (uh, no-brainer, that is why i am looking for a job). I’ve had people ask me: why are you looking for a job? Uh, i was laid off, b/c the industry i was in (Hospitality management) took a serious hit in the economy. I’m not about to give a 3 year commitment to a temporary job. And yes I will leave if i’m able to, eventually, but right now i’m too busy trying to catch up and stave off homelessness that that’s all i’m worried about. I will be loyal to you as a company, but companies do not own me.

    • Totally agree that there sould be some reciprocity, “they” are concerned that “we” are overqualified and will jump ship as soon as we can get something better, but “they” wold drop us in a flash to make the P&L look better. PLUS, no matter how hard you try, your resume will give some indication of your age, and if you are “Apparently” over 50 by your resume, you will NEVER find out they found someone younger to hire, because the largest part of a job search today is on the web, impersonal, and NEVER gets a reply, you just apply to dozens of opportunities, and “listen” to the silence that results.
      It’s a totally different world, and very frustrating, 40 years working, 25 in the same general industry, laid off (effectively) three times by same company (twice actually, once by being rescued from a RIF by another division internally but at a substantial cut in compensation), and now out here for nearly 8 months – but I am not telling anybody anything new here, those who read this, are in the same boat, and I don’t seee any life preservers.

  2. “Management watchers say those low rates mask a risk of future defections, and that many companies may be caught off guard when the labor market improves more robustly.””

    So if the employee was happy with his/her current job then why would they leave? I echo Lynnehs’ comments above.

    We all can’t work for the government with cushy benefits, guaranteed job safety, and fairy tale pensions…

  3. I have heard the response that you are overqualified too many times in the past 18 months. I am now taking on a seasonal job to get started in a retail company. There is room to climb the ladder and if managers above my position are threatened by my “over qualification” then let them work hard to gain experience and become more qualified themselves so that those of us below do not over take them.

    The most frustrating situation is where a company takes on an employee with less than five years of experience under the misconception that this person will stay with them after they have been trained. There is no loyalty from employers and certainly not from employees. Any motivated individual will leave a company for a better position if they feel stuck where they are.

    • “Overqualified” is often used as a synonym for “You’re too old, too expensive, and we can get a kid fresh out of college for pennies on the dollar”, and the reason more mature and experienced workers hear this word and not being hired… with “Too old” being the most likely reason, and the one you’ll never hear because no company wants to be sued or hauled into court for age discrimination.

      Sadly, a 40-year old woman’s resume might be more attractive than a 30-year-old’s… but in reality, it’s not “attractive resumes” that get the job– it’s “attractive faces”. Too often, “younger” = “more attractive”.

      Hey, if an employer can lie– so can an applicant. (Dis)honesty is a two-way street.

      • I agree and disagree. I’m fairly young, usually overqualified (working on a Ph.d) and I couldn’t get a quality job to save my life. I guess I have opposing qualities. But as sad as it is, the people that I know with great jobs at my age (23-25) all lied on their resume/interview. They are more than capable than performing the job, but with a highly competitive market people, especially younger ones are resorting to these small immoralities in order to survive.

      • You can’t lie about your age or leave off the relevant degrees because it will come back to bite you in the butt if you DO get the job and they look at your date of birth on your passport for filling out the I-9. Or if you leave dates off then it looks suspicious and in this job market it will just get thrown away.
        I have yet another situation in that when people SEE me they assume that I look about 12 and can’t possibly be qualified, can’t possibly be a Yalie from the 1990s, can’t possibly have graduated college prep high school in the 80′s, etc. Can’t possibly have a teaching credential or one year of Law school…..upon seeing me I get the “you can’t possibly be qualified” line of BS treatment. Either it’s that I look 12 (instead of 42) or it’s straight up racism, one or the other…..

  4. I have been diligently pursuing a new career in health care for the past 6 months after almost a year of schooling, going the extra mile to get licensed and certified. This is not a requirement (yet) in my state but to show I am passionate, committed and serious about it, I spent the extra time and money to obtain professional credentials. Prior to this, I have 25 years administrative experience. Does this date me? Yes, I am in my late 40′s.

    What I am running into is two-fold:

    No one seems to want to give me a chance because I have no experience. I was hoping my 4.0 GPA and credentials would be a good indicator of my ability and level of committment but every place I have applied wants at least 1 year experience.

    Secondly, I have also been applying for other jobs, most of which I am overqualified for. I have gotten several interviews and apparently fallen prey to the questions that have eliminated me even though I have followed up with phone calls and letters to express my continued interest.

    So, I am appreciative of the advice here. Hopefully one of these days I will connect with “some” employer that will see my value and worth and not look at just statistics, my age or any number of other perceived negatives in order to not hire me. I’m sure many older workers are experiencing the same.

    • Based on helping friends and clients for the past year, here’s the most effective change in interview tactics that landed them jobs:

      During your interviews you are so focused on selling your qualifications that you might not be learning enough about their true needs (the unspoken ones) so you can tailor your responses/qualifications to the skills required of the job you’re applying for. In other words, asking more questions about what’s the compelling event that created the opening; when’s the targeted fill date and why; what the ideal candidate would bring to the position, etc.

      Then eliminate all discussion of your background that is irrelevant to that specific job opening and the specified skills in the job description. That’s the hard part because you worked hard to get where you are. But it’s critical that you are brief and laser-focused in your responses to their questions.

      Give a relevant example of how you displayed the desired quality or skill they seek. Structure should be S.O.A.R. stories: Situation you were in,
      Obstacles you faced,
      Actions you took, and
      Results of your those actions.

      Short, concise examples. Create your own reference book and take it with you to interviews. It’s okay to use it as a reminder of the many successes you’ve earned.
      Hope this helps.

      • Great Advice Greg, I was in the same position at one point and I wish I would have heard/read valuable such as this earlier.

  5. I worked myself into poor health with a high stress position for almost 20 years. They let me go 1 month before my contract for the year was up, because my doctor would not let me return to work after 12 weeks.

    I do not want the high stress jobs with heavy responsibilities. Employers have a hard time understanding that I just want to be able to live on reasonable income to live. I don’t want to move up and don’t want to take it home at night.

    I am downsizing for my health’s sake.

  6. all true and legitimate concerns/responses. no doubt , it’s a jungle out here, and very disturbing on so many levels, the rich get richer and the middle class has disappeared… necessity is the mother of invention. Many of my friends have found re-inventing new careers,down sizing intentionally, following a passion, doing something you love rather than high stress, okay maybe the $ is not big, when you take a closer look at your own expenses, you will find that scaling down is not all that bad, you just have to be a little creative with frugality, ask to negotiate for nearly everything and buy at thrift stores….be good stewards. I know one of my top goals is to be debt free and live on less.

    As a 1st generation immigrant who came to this country with my parents, my parents dreamed of a better life for us kids. put in perspective, it still is…trust me, we have nothing to complain about compared to other parts of the world who can’t even get clean water or kids dying of starvation. I try to look for the bigger picture, be grateful for what I do have – God’s grace, life, health, family, friends in Christ, community, faith, grace and just enough provisions – all by the grace of God. This past 2 years is a lesson for all of us. We need to discern the lesson each of us need to learn because of the challenges we’ve faced, they were there by design. It has shown many of us what is really important in life, and where we need to place our focus, trust, so while christmas maybe poorer and not so filled with shopping days, it will be filled with spiritual blessings. (Philppians 4:19) God will meet all your needs and (Philip 4:13) – I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

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  8. In practice, I have found that the average employer, especially of companies with less than a hundred employees, is reluctant to employ anyone with degrees.
    Such a reluctance is based on a fear that the prospective employee will reach for the interviewer’s position, such a fear is mindless.
    I have applied for positions which are anything but desk bound paper shuffling, such as Production Management, Head Chemist of Laboratories and or Electronics production (being suitably qualified for such positions).
    It pays a job applicant to investigate a would be employer, as there are so many ‘lack lustre’ businesses who seem afraid to strike out and think outside of the little box they’ve enjoyed for many years.
    A qualified individual is a definate threat to an insecure interviewer and in most
    cases, the interviewer is not qualified, in any way, to decide whether or not a
    person would suit the position as advertised.
    A recent interview for a Laboratory Electronic Instrument designer is a case in
    point, the interviewer had a degree in Physics, end of story, he had not actually worked in any practical operation since leaving university, the company was a fifty person operation, there were no other electronically/chemistry qualified persons in the company. This same person felt that I was over qualified and denied me the job. In short, he was after someone who would accept a much lower salary and
    conditions which I attempted to discuss with him, needless to say, four weeks after interview, I received a letter from the company saying that”The number of highly qualified applicants made it difficult to choose from the list of candidates who’d applied…etc etc.,
    I later found that a young chap who had a hobby of electronics had been offered the job and at a salary that was little more than he would have earned as a ‘starter in McDonald’s’ i.e $7.00 per hour.
    I have found that, in over 57 applications, a similar outcome, I decided the best answer to this problem was to offer myself as a ‘Contract Consultant’ anywhere, anytime and at my own rates’ it has worked for me, it may work too for others.
    The days of wasting time on University Degrees make a mockery once the ultimate
    qualifications have been achieved.

    • I recently found myself not only way older than but having way more years of substitute teaching than the person at County office of education in the credentialing office had experience doing that job. It took her a month and a half of “research” to get that my California sub credential allows me to sub in ANY county and not just one (which would have been a “Temporary COUNTY Permit”) and has so far delayed me from starting for 3 months and counting now just because the credential was gotten IN another county besides the one I was standing in. And yet SHE has the regular job doing that and I’M just a SUB. I went to Yale, she went to — ??? And yet there’s no way I’d ever get THAT job.
      This is the problem we’re having now that people are getting their jobs or have gotten their jobs over the last few decades, based on “who they knew” not their ability to DO said job.

  9. Myself: In 2005 I decided to quit working as a skilled tradesman self employed. even then I went to job searching and found so many employers age discriminating back then I then decided not to continue looking.(2005)I actually fell into a job threw a friend and aim still employed. although with out benefits. I think this way about employers. if you do not like what you see, go against the flow and compete with the company you once applied for.
    that would change everything!

  10. I have been reading the replies and emails and am in the same boat. With all due respect the black breatheren organized and got the Civil Rights Act so why don’t we organize and have extensions to the Civil Rights that you cannot be discriminated against for being over qualified or not experienced. Yes it took years for the first act and the fight will be long but if we want the employers to understand we are tired of nojobs because we did our part then we have got to be brave and organize. It can be done. We do not want violence, we do not want socialism, we do not want a negative movement but we have got to stand strong and say WE MEAN BUSINESS. The employers control but we have got to let them know it is a two way street. We have got to reform HR prctices, we have got to educate the employer on age discrimination as well. We can share stories and that is good but without action they say little for a solution. Join me email me so we can organize. If we handle this right the employers will runto us. We need to set up coops and ways for people to get experience when it is needed. Let’s get meaningful dialogue. here is my email contact me so we can first have an organizational network then slowly begin taking action
    clyde-gallop@hotmail.com please contact if you are serious to make changes ever slow as they might be.

    • That’s a good idea but by the time such a movement got anything accomplished, the originators would long since have died of starvation from having no job.

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  19. Very interesting insight into qualifications. It’s hard to second guess how or what things might be intimidating to employers when they read your resume. All you can do is write a custom resume for each job application, paying close attention to the basic job requirements.

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