In a tight labor market, there’s only one thing worse than not getting the job of your dreams; not getting the job you could have done in your sleep.  There are many reasons that jobseekers consider jobs for which they are overqualified.  In a recession, high level jobs may be scarce and competition intense.  When you transition from one industry or career to another, you may be forced into looking for entry level jobs in the new field, no matter how far you had advanced in your former career.  Baby Boomers are opting for jobs that offer more time for family and quality of life.  Others, seeking more meaning in their careers, are looking for opportunities in mission based companies or non-profits, even if the jobs pay less.

Being told that they are overqualified is one of the most common complaints of mid-career professionals.  Recently, a member of the WorkSource Professional Network fumed, “Shouldn’t I be the judge of whether I’m overqualified? If I’m willing to consider a lower level position, why can’t they just look at me like any other candidate?”  The assumption among many mid career professionals is that “overqualified” is a code word for “middle aged.” They believe that it’s one way to discriminate against older workers.

When an employer sees a resume from someone who obviously has more skills, more education and more experience than the job requires, it raises a red flag.  The recruiter immediately starts wondering about what is motivating the candidate.  Is he having family problems?  Health problems? Confidence issues?  If the economy is weak, the employer starts wondering what will happen with employment conditions improve. Generally, when a recruiter uses the term ‘overqualified’ in your interview, he has one or more of these unspoken concerns:

  • You will demand more money than the company can afford to pay for the position, or soon demand a raise even though you agreed to the initial salary offer
  • When the economy improves, you will leave immediately for a better job
  • You will be bored at this job, and leave for something better after the company has invested in training you
  • You have not been successful at previous positions and are seeking a low pressure haven from responsibility

Other concerns that can be masked by the term “overqualified” include the fear that you’ll be difficult to manage.  A worker with years of experience (even if it’s in another field) may be reluctant to take direction from a younger manager.  This problem can be magnified if the experienced worker is feeling insecure or unhappy in the lower level position.  She may be feeling defensive about her lower status or salary, and anxious to prove that she deserves more prestige or respect. The ensuing power struggle, even though it may be unintended, can have a negative impact on any team.

The challenge in defending against these concerns is that often one or more of them are correct. Most job seekers are hoping to move up in responsibility and pay, and when they offer to move down, it’s an indication that their career focus has changed.  Hiring managers have a responsibility to the long term health of the company.  They would rather hire a “good enough” employee who will stay with the company and be fully engaged in the job than a highly skilled short term employee who is obviously bored every day on the job.  In that case, the more skilled worker may not be the better value for the company.

Mid-career jobseekers deplore the “overqualified” term, viewing it as a euphemism for “too old” and “too expensive.”  Their resentment sometimes comes through in the interview, which only reinforces a recruiter’s reluctance.  How can you convince a recruiter that you’re serious about the position?  The first step is to examine your own motives.  Before you schedule an interview, sit down and think carefully about why you want this job.  You must have a very good reason, and a plan for articulating it to the recruiter, whose job it is to protect the interests of the company.  One good reason to consider a lower position might be changing fields. “I know that I need to gain experience in this industry before using my skills from my previous job.  This opportunity would be a great way to learn the basics before I aspire again to a management position.”

Whatever your reason, you should address the recruiter’s possible concerns in the interview.  Bringing her unspoken reservations out into the open will prove that you have given the matter some thought.  “I know you might be concerned about hiring someone who’s earned so much more in the past. As we discussed, I’m interested in this position for (whatever reasons) and not for the salary, since I have other income.”  You may offer to sign an employment agreement that outlines your salary for the first year or two of your employment. Being willing to discuss sensitive issues openly and commit to the company’s terms in writing will position you as an honest partner in the negotiation. If you can convince the recruiter that your skills will bring real value to the company, you can overcome concern about your cost.

2 thoughts on “Overqualified

  1. Wyman Stewart

    “I know that I need to gain experience in this industry before using my skills from my previous job. This opportunity would be a great way to learn the basics before I aspire again to a management position.”

    HR Person: “We are looking to hire someone who is happy and satisified to stay in this position with our company. From what you’ve said, it does not sound like you would be happy with us.”

    There are any number of things wrong with the approach of the business community toward hiring people, which is one reason we are in the economic mess we’re in today. If this post were widely read by the unemployed the responses you would get, then everyone ignore, amounts to a cry that there is a GREAT need to change today’s hiring processes.

    I, personally, once made a 30 mile trip (60 miles total) for an HR person to inform me I was over-qualified for a position her company was hiring for, after she called me to interview me, knowing I lived 30 miles away. The job title did not clearly define the position, nor did the job description. Needless to say, my explanation for why I wanted the job was not satisfactory to the HR person. I will always feel her waiting until I arrived to mention I was “over-qualified” meant (1.) She made the decision in advance not to hire me. (2.) That she could immediately see I was not a young man, but at that time about age 40, clinched her decision. I am sure I have ran into similar situations where “over-qualified” could have been invoked, but was not, since the HR person makes that choice often without telling you, just as age discrimination a HR person will not divulge for obvious legal reasons.

    You have presented a wonderful employer defense here, while decrying not at all the possiblitity companies could be hiring people they could only dream of getting in the past, whose ideas and innovations might speed up the economic recovery of this country. I am not tha management or supervisory type person you had in mind as you wrote this post, but I can certainly see the damage being done to this country by maintaining the business attitude most of this post is supporting. Yes, in our system a person has to talk a good game in the interview, then hopefully deliver if offered a postion. However, the overall attitude and implications of this post are negative for America, the workplace, and business. I only hope a unemployed college educated professionals with extensive business experience will find this post, then point out all the fallacies at work in the real world exercise of what you have posted. Then you and others might listen and act to make necessary changes. Afterall, you are only mirroring the climate we live in today. It needs to change!

    (Forgive me if I sound a little angry and arrogant. I read and appreciate your posts. However, without two-way communication, there is little hope of change. Thank you very much for this post. Couldn’t resist saying something, despite lightning and thunder all around me at the moment. Hope I’m not the cause of the storm.)


    1. I know – it’s not easy to excuse the employer’s point of view, but on this one, they hold all the cards. I have been through seller’s markets, too, when employers payed signing bonuses for fast food jobs.


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