by Meridith Levinson

Should You Take a Lower-Level Job?

Mar 13, 20094 mins

Many career experts warn job seekers against taking lower-level jobs. They argue it does a disservice to the job seeker’s career. But in this economy, taking a lower-level job might actually be a smart career move. Here’s why.

When a job search extends beyond three months, some unemployed job seekers begin to wonder if they should take a lower-level job just to get a paycheck again. It’s an honest question and a difficult one. After working so hard to climb the career ladder, taking a step back can bruise one’s pride.  

I’ve heard career experts warn job seekers against the temptation to take a lower-level job. They advise job seekers to hold out for a job offer that will advance their careers, not set them back. Frankly, I’ve always questioned that advice. When someone needs a paycheck to keep a roof over their head and food on the table, it doesn’t matter what job they get as long as it’s honest and helps pay the bills.  

Today I found someone who says that taking a lower-level job can be a smart career move, especially if it prevents you from being unemployed for more than 12 months. And with the economy as bad as it is, 12 months of unemployment is not unrealistic for many job seekers.  

Steve Watson is the international chairman of executive search firm Stanton Chase International. He recommends that job seekers consider positions a level lower than those they most recently held. Job seekers will increase their chances of getting a job sooner if they keep their options open and consider lower-level positions in addition to relocating and switching industries, says Watson. It’s elementary. (For more job search advice, see 10 Secrets for Searching for a Job During a Recession.)

Watson’s advice goes for executives, too. He notes that in 2002, a number of unemployed high-tech CEOs went back to their previous functional roles as CFOs, CIOs and EVPs of sales and marketing. “They went down a level,” says Watson. Did it hurt their careers? No. One of the CIOs is now a CEO again today, adds the search exec. “The A talent always rises back up,” he says.

In fact, holding out for the perfect or even comparable job opportunity in this economy may be more risky than taking a step back. Says Watson:

“If you want to hold out for a CEO or CIO job, that’s fine for three to nine months. Up to a year can be o.k. and explainable. But if you’re out of a job for 12 to 18 months, you’ve devalued your marketability. Business moves so fast today—there are so many new regulations and changes, new laws and new competition taking place on a 7-by-24 basis—that if you’re out of the market and out of touch for 12 or more months, you’ve lost a lot.”

I asked Watson if unemployed job seekers would look less out of touch with the business world if they spent some of the time they were unemployed doing consultingwork. He says taking on consulting projects definitely helps, but that it’s important to take on projects that will help job seekers get the jobs they want because employers consider these projects as part of a job seeker’s portfolio (and because job seekers often present these projects as part of their oeuvre.)

For example, Watson was conducting a search for a client that needed a CFO, and one of the candidates his client was considering had been unemployed for eight months. During that time, the candidate picked up a consulting gig managing a company’s payroll. The search committee was unimpressed with the payroll project. Watson says they didn’t think it was high-level enough and would have preferred to see the candidate working on a more strategic project. (Of course, if this candidate needed to put food on the table, she might not have had much choice into her consulting engagements.)

Watson’s advice to be mindful of the consulting projects job seekers take makes sense, but it almost seems to contradict his recommendation to consider lower-level jobs. Here’s what I mean: He seems to be saying that it’s okay to take a lower-level job, but it’s not okay to take on lower-level consulting work. I guess the logic is that if you’re going to take on low-level consulting work, you might as well accept a lower-level job.

What do you think? Would you take on a lower-level position if you were out of work for a long time?