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The Challenges of Being "Over-Qualified"


Some of the hardest hit in today's job market are people that had been in leadership and senior management roles. Many have had a very difficult time landing a new job and in many cases, the length of their unemployment has been exceptionally long.

Often, after a while, they are more than willing to "take a step back" from the level of role they've had, both in title and compensation. However, are often told… "Sorry, but you're over-qualified for this position."

Clearly they can do the role well, why are companies so unwilling to consider such strong candidates? There are multiple reasons, and solutions. Here are some observations…

There are fewer jobs! Brilliant… it doesn't take an "expert" to tell you that. In today's market there are fewer high level jobs than there were a few years ago. However, even in a great economy, there are fewer higher-level jobs than there are mid, or staff level position. The job market is always a pyramid with fewer high level, and higher paying jobs than there are lower down the slope.

So while you may have been able to find new jobs quickly when you were younger in your career, it's naturally going to take longer when you have fewer targets to aim for. Additionally though, in this market many companies have eliminated layers in their management structure in order to cut costs and become more efficient. So there are even fewer management roles available than normal. Meanwhile, there are many highly qualified people competing for the jobs that are available, making it tougher to be selected for any given opening.

An employer sees a step back as temporary. While you may sincerely be interested in a position at lesser title and compensation, an employer is usually not convinced that you would stick with it long-term… and often, they're right! If you're pursuing lesser positions primarily because you're unable to find a role at your previous level, the likelihood of you 'jumping ship' should a more appropriate position become available to you is generally quite high.

Meanwhile, the employer may also be interviewing other candidates whose experience matches the position and view the role as a perfect fit, or a progressive step in their career. Comparatively, it's easy for them to assume that you are a greater risk as a long term fit than those others.

It's usually not an age issue. Usually, people that have achieved higher level roles in their careers, are also older than people at lower stages of their careers. That's not hard to figure out. However, often when more experienced people are not able to land a new job, they assume it's because of age discrimination. While it is true that employers will usually hire younger people for lower to mid level positions, it is overwhelmingly due to the person having the appropriate level of experience for the role, and not because of their age. While age discrimination is not entirely extinct, it's nowhere near as prevalent as job seekers often believe it is.

An employer sees an over-qualified candidate as potentially becoming complacent. Another aspect to employers not wanting to hire over-qualified candidates is that they view them as becoming bored, dissatisfied or restless in that role quickly. It's easy to see how someone that's been used to performing at more strategic or leadership levels would become complacent when 'stuck' in a lesser role. Even though that person may bring knowledge and experience beyond other candidates, most employers would prefer a passionate and engaged person that still has things to learn, over a highly competent person that lacks zeal for the job.

They're not likely to call based on your resume. When you're a Staff Accountant with manufacturing industry experience, applying to Staff Accountant positions at manufacturing companies, odds are not bad that you'll get called when you send in your resume. It's an obvious fit, and you are the target they are looking for. Any deviation from that kind of fit, however, and your odds at getting a call drop dramatically. If you are changing fields, changing industries, or pursuing positions below your previous experience, you can not rely on calls from prospective employers. A recruiter or hiring manager will see the level of experience and generally prefer not to go down that path. Especially when they have other, better targeted candidates that have also applied. It will take other strategies to be considered.

Relationships, not data. When a resume is submitted to an employer, it is nothing more than a piece of data. If that data clearly fits the job description it's considered, and if it doesn't fit, it's generally ignored. However, ultimately, companies don't hire data, they hire people. In order to be considered for positions where you are not an ideal fit, you must build a relationship.

Targeting companies and not just job listings is critical. Find companies you are interested in pursuing and begin a very deliberate process of connecting to, talking to, and meeting as many people as you can at those organizations. Showing interest in them, learning about the company, gaining more referrals, and letting them know of the types of roles you'd be interested in. When you see a job listing that is of interest to you at a new company, begin the same process there. Being referred from employees of that company will very often overcome the objection of being over-qualified. When they hear from someone else that you are interested in the role, rather than simply your own opinion, they are more likely to warm up to the idea.

Know, and be able to articulate, "Why". Finally, one other factor that often plays into an employer not believing your sincere interest in a lower level position, is that you haven't given a good reason as to Why you would do it. Stating that you are "anxious to get back to work", or "willing to build up to the level again", or that "the company is more important to you than the job", each are overused, and sound canned in order to get an offer. Hearing those usually creates doubt.

Sincerity is critical, and legitimate reasons are important. "I found I was more fulfilled at when I was in a contributor role rather than once I had primarily leadership and administrative responsibilities." …sounds more sincere and legitimate. Certainly, you have to state what's true for you. However, employers rarely are interested in someone who seems to be "settling" for something less than they would really like.

Finding contacts and building relationships within a company is the best way to get past the 'over-qualified' speed bump. Don't only rely on your own ability to persuade them at an interview, have 'backup' within their own organization. Build relationships and see your results change.


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1 comment:

Jeff Ogden said...

Great post, Harry. Reminds me of a phone interview I did with a Chief Marketing Officer for a direct report role. He said "You are very impressive. The right job for you here is mine and it is not available."

Jeff Ogden, the Fearless Competitor

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