The Over Qualified Workers Struggling to Find a Job

Originally Published in Harvard Business Review

December 22nd, 2022   
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Article published in BBC Life – Recommended Read

By Alex Christian

6th July 2022

Intuitively, it seems employers would want to hire the most skilled and experienced candidates. But that’s not always the reality.

When Emily wanted to move into her dream career, she assumed her best option was to apply for an entry-level admin position and work her way up. There was a vacancy at a major entertainment company in London; her five years working at other multinational corporations meant she fulfilled every requirement of the job spec.

The tactic seemed to work: the company’s hiring team contacted Emily within days. But there was good and bad news. “They said I had a very impressive CV and was an outstanding candidate,” she explains. “But in the interview, they told me I was over-qualified: that I’d quickly end up bored in a job that was beneath my experience.”

As a compromise, the company promised Emily a new role. Ultimately, however, the position fell through. Not only did it leave Emily stuck in a role she wanted to quit, but also in a Catch-22; she was too skilled for an entry-level position in her target career but not skilled enough to apply for a vacancy that matched her current job title.

The whole process left Emily, who is using one name for job-security reasons, frustrated. “I’d rather have just been given the original role as advertised,” she says. “I may have found the job easy, but there was nothing stopping the company from promoting me if they thought it was a good fit. Hearing I was ‘too good’ was initially flattering. But when I realized I didn’t get the job, it felt like I’d been misled.”

On the face of it, being over-qualified for a job might appear to be a good thing. A candidate with more experience would logically be placed at the top of the applicant pile. And for an employer, hiring a worker who surpasses the job requirements would seemingly be a coup.

However, that’s generally not how it works out; in fact, being over-qualified can sometimes be a reason for employers to rule candidates out. Perhaps counterintuitively, employers often reject candidates based on an excess of skills and experience, even in a market where talent is hard to come by.

“Good isn’t necessarily good”

As workers’ careers progress, they typically ascend into more senior roles, gradually making their way towards management or executive positions. However, the higher employees go, the fewer the alternative jobs.

“They move towards the peak of a pyramid,” explains Terry Greer-King, vice-president of EMEA at cybersecurity firm SonicWall, based in London. “As they gain greater experience, there’s less breadth in terms of opportunities: trying something different would require scaling back down the pyramid.”

In some instances, employees want to take a step back to move forwards. This could be for a career change, such as in Emily’s case, or because an experienced worker, struggling to climb the next rung of the ladder, opts for a lateral or downwards move to make a longer-

term gain. Personal circumstances can also play a factor: a relocation or a return to work following a career gap may force a worker to downgrade their job title.

Yet while these circumstances might feel like good reasons to candidates, recruiters can see workers applying for positions apparently ‘below’ their current career level as a red flag. For Greer-King, a CV of an overly-experienced candidate is like one indicating job-hopping or no movement at all – it's cause for suspicion.

“In hiring, you have to act paranoid,” he says. “If someone is coming down a level or two, and they've likely already achieved what the role offers, then you have to ask questions about their motivation.”

While a handful of candidates might manage to successfully explain their motives and convince companies they really want to take that step down, others may suffer from recruiters’ fears that a lower role will leave them unsatisfied. The concern is that the over-qualified worker will soon find themselves unchallenged, bored, and itching for their next move.

“When someone joins a company, it could take three months to a year to get them fully productive,” explains Greer-King. “Even if someone is overly skilled for the role, they can’t just turn up and do the job: they need to understand the culture, processes, and technology. So, investing so much time in someone, only for them to leave six months later, isn’t the wisest hiring choice.”

Workers in senior roles in industries where the corporate ladder is well established, like management consulting, can be particularly vulnerable to the perils of being over-qualified. “Someone might have deep expertise in one field and apply for a job in another, only to be informed by the recruiting team they should apply for a higher role,” says Davis Nguyen, founder of My Consulting Offer, based in Georgia US. “But if the firm doesn't have an opening [at that level], the candidate would ultimately be rejected.”

In turning down such workers, employers may say they’re too experienced for the position. Sometimes, they inform them that they’re simply not the best fit for the company.

If someone is coming down a level or two, and they've likely already achieved what the role offers, then you have to ask questions about their motivation – Terry Greer-King.

“An employer wants to hire the right person, at the right time, who can grow into the role, develop and mature,” says Greer-King. “Employees generally want to be challenged; then, they tend to be happier and stay longer. At the heart of it, good isn’t necessarily good: a candidate can be wrong in areas other than skill and experience.”

‘Took my choice away’

Of course, some nimble employers may be able to harness these over-qualified workers. Greer-King says small companies, in particular, less constrained by corporate structures and hierarchies, are more able to recruit over-qualified employees. “Start-ups are agile and have flexibility,” he says. “They can hire an overly skilled candidate and justify that with a job title and wage that suits their experience.”

Agile employers may also be able to recruit over-qualified workers and, by swiftly promoting them, pre-empt any feelings of boredom, says Shelley Crane, director of permanent placement services at recruiting firm Robert Half, based in London. That way, companies benefit from a worker’s experience, keeping them motivated and engaged for the long haul.

“Someone ‘too good for the role will be only an asset to the business in the short term,” she says, “unless there are excellent internal progression opportunities.”

Employers may also be more likely to be accommodating to younger over-qualified workers; Greer-King says their motives for a downwards move can be more easily justified. “The more senior you are, the bigger the comedown to a junior position, and the more likely it is that the short-term need is financial. Hiring an older candidate would also mean they’re not only working under someone with less experience than them but also younger than them – that can create structural issues.”

Right now, the hiring crisis implies employers can no longer afford to be quite so picky about over-qualified workers. Greer-King acknowledges that vetting for overly experienced candidates is harder when the battle for talent is so fierce.

Yet Crane says companies are more focused on retaining existing staff; overly skilled candidates are still being turned away. “In the current market, it can be costly and time-consuming to find someone new,” she says. “When over-qualified workers move on, the company is often back where it started.”

‘A catastrophic effect’

For workers keen to move, it can be tempting to deliberately downplay skills or omit experience from resumes, but Crane advises against this. Given a candidate’s career history will likely be discussed in a job interview, any dishonesty may be uncovered further down the recruitment process.

“It’s never a good idea to scale back your CV,” she says. She also warns workers more generally against applying for roles for which they are over-qualified, saying: “If someone applies for multiple roles below their skill level, and are rejected, it can have a catastrophic effect on their confidence.”

In the end, while patience and a determined job hunt can be rewarded, the reality is that some experienced candidates can find themselves stuck through no fault of their own. This can particularly be the case for senior employees, especially those who have been at one organization for a long time. “They could be ingrained in another workplace culture,” says Greer-King. “That makes them less malleable.”

However, the scourge of being over-qualified can affect anyone, like Emily. In her case, while she never landed her ideal role, she maneuvered her way eventually into the career that she wanted; she found a role at a smaller entertainment brand that ended up being an upgrade to her previous job.

But the experience of being seen as too qualified for her dream role left her questioning why a company would choose to freeze out a good worker – someone who was happy to work their way up from a lower role and keen to add value to the company. “I applied for the job because I truly believed I could offer a lot to that company,” she says. “It was my choice to go for it. Saying I was over-qualified took that choice away from me.”

This article was originally published in Harvard Business Review.

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