Job Search: What to Do When You're Overqualified

Being overqualified for a job should give a job seeker a competitive advantage, right? Unfortunately, it can be more of a liability than an asset in a job search. If you're being told you're too qualified for a job, here are five ways to address hiring managers' concerns about your candidacy.

Derek Stolpa has been working as an independent consultant and searching for a stable, full-time job since he was laid off from his position as manager of IT procurement and asset management with Jefferson Wells, a professional services firm now owned by Manpower, in 2005. When applying for jobs in his field, Stolpa says employers have told him dozens of times that he's overqualified or too experienced.

Having prospective employers tell him he has too much experience is frustrating for Stolpa. "The part that's more disappointing is the fact that I really have a passion and enjoy what I do, and I just want to be able to share that—not only for my own professional and personal growth, but also to give back to an organization," he says.

Being told they're overqualified mystifies many IT professionals engaged in job searches. They don't understand why employers wouldn't want to hire a candidate who's more than qualified for a given IT job. Would employers rather hire someone who's not qualified, they wonder.

Exceeding the minimum qualifications required for a job certainly has its advantages for job seekers. IT hiring managers interviewed for this article say hiring a job seeker who's overqualified for a position offers several potential benefits. For one, the candidate can quickly get up to speed in a new job with little or no training. For another, the overqualified job seeker generally can bring a broader range of experience and greater depth of knowledge to the role, along with an unparalleled desire to excel. Finally, the right overqualified candidate can potentially elevate the rest of the staff by raising the bar for performance inside the organization.

But that's where an overqualified candidate's competitive edge ends. For many overqualified job seekers, the breadth and depth of their experience can be more of a liability than an asset in their job searches.

The reason? Hiring managers worry that an overqualified candidate will be unhappy in the role or with the salary and will leave the company in three, six or 12 months. They also say overqualified candidates pose a variety of management challenges. It can be hard to keep such individuals motivated and engaged jobs which may be beneath them. In addition, colleagues and managers often feel threatened by overqualified candidates. Finally, they fret over salary negotiations, knowing they may not be able to meet this kind of candidate's salary expectations.

The odds of getting the job offer may be stacked against overqualified job seekers, but it's not impossible. They just have to know how to sell themselves and how to effectively address hiring managers' specific concerns about their candidacy. Here are five tips for allaying hiring managers' concerns about your extensive qualifications in your cover letter and during job interviews.

1. Use your cover letter to sell yourself.

All cover letters should explain why you're interested in the company and the position for which you're applying. They should also demonstrate that you've done some research on the company, says Michael Kohlman, information systems manager at Cook Group Inc., a Bloomington, Ind.-based medical device manufacturer.

If you know you're overqualified for the job in question, explaining specifically but succinctly in the cover letter how your experience makes you ideal for the position and uniquely suited to solve the company's problems is critical, he adds.

If you're applying for a position at a lower level than you've previously worked, your cover letter should address why you're down-shifting, says Kohlman.

A compelling cover letter will make a hiring manager more receptive to the breadth and depth of experience on your résumé and less prone to dismissing you as overqualified.

2. Don't dumb down your résumé.

Say you're a software developer with 10 years of experience and you find yourself applying for a documentation specialist position: You may be tempted to downplay your experience on your résumé and to leave off various skills you possess and certifications you hold, thinking that a hiring manager might dismiss you as overqualified on the basis of your résumé. But IT hiring managers say don't give into the temptation. They caution job seekers against dumbing down their curricula vitae.

"Having a really deep résumé is key," says Eddie Jenkins, the director of IT for Medex, a provider of travel medical insurance based in Baltimore, Md. "You want to tell the whole story of who you are."

3. Anticipate questions about your career goals.

Since one of hiring managers' most pressing concerns about overqualified candidates is their "flight risk," they will ask a lot of questions during the interview about your interest in the position, their organization, and your career goals to determine whether you're genuinely interested in their job or simply view it as a stop-gap measure on the way to a more suitable or higher-paying position.

Job seekers who answer the "Why are you interested in this position" question by letting on that they're desperate for a job or a paycheck immediately get weeded out, hiring managers says.

Similarly, job seekers who make it clear they want to move up quickly when asked about their career goals also get knocked out.

"If someone is looking for a way to get past the fact that they're overqualified for a position, making it clear during the interview that they've thought about their qualifications and have goals is a big plus," says Kohlman.

In other words, the overqualified candidate needs to be able to convincingly explain how this position aligns with their longer-term career goals.

When Kohlman interviewed a woman last year who had been in an IT leadership position with the University of Wisconsin for an IT director position at his company, he had concerns about why she was applying for a lower-level position. Kohlman says the candidate was clear during the interview that downshifting was something she genuinely desired. He says she told him that she had been in a leadership position for several years and truly missed getting her hands dirty in IT, that she sought more work-life balance and wanted to relocate from Wisconsin to Bloomington to be closer to family. Kohlman hired her.

"As far as I know, she's very happy [in the position]," he says.

4. Allay managers' concerns that you'll threaten their jobs.

Stolpa, the IT job seeker, says during some job interviews he's sensed that the hiring manager is worried he might step on their turf. When he detects this concern, Stolpa says he tells the hiring manager that he understands the bounds and scope of the position for which he's interviewing and he wouldn't step out of it unless he was specifically called upon to offer additional experience or advice.

Stolpa wants hiring managers to know that "overqualified" professionals who've been in transition for a while don't want to be perceived as a threat. "We're willing to start at the bottom if we need to," he says. "We want to come back into an organization and be gainfully employed and provide a benefit."

5. Present yourself as a good value for the employer.

If you're willing to take a lower-level job and the salary that goes with it, market yourself as a good value for the company, says David Starmer, CIO of Boston, Mass.-based Back Bay Restaurant Group. Without coming off as desperate, make it clear to the hiring manager that she'll get more knowledge and experience for her money if she hires you than if she hired the average candidate.

Starmer says six months ago he hired a high-level IT architect who had worked in the financial services industry for 25 years to serve as a project manager in charge of overseeing software installations. Starmer says he chose this candidate because "he was the most qualified person for what we needed." The CIO also notes, "The benefit we get [from this candidate] far exceeds our costs."

Follow Meridith Levinson on Twitter at @meridith.

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