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The Color of Money

In times of record unemployment, being highly qualified may be a drawback

By Michelle Singletary
April 19, 2009
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You've lost your job. But you don't immediately panic. After all, you have an undergraduate degree and perhaps an advanced degree. So you begin applying for jobs confident that you will land something soon paying the salary you've been accustomed to earning. But then you hear those dreadful words: "I'm sorry, you're overqualified."

Unfortunately, many highly qualified and educated professionals are discovering that their overqualifications are a scarlet letter on their resume.

Since the recession began in December 2007, the economy has lost 5.1 million jobs, with almost two-thirds of the losses occurring in the last five months, according to the Labor Department. If those numbers aren't scary enough, the figures show a disturbing trend. The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) rose to 3.2 million in March.

Obviously with massive layoffs and the extended time it takes to find a job, many of the unemployed are downgrading their job expectations and are going for positions for which they are overqualified just so they can pay their bills. However, professionals are finding employers are reluctant to hire them.

In some cases, employers are too cowardly to tell someone they're not the right fit so they use the "you're overqualified" route. But as I work with individuals searching for employment, it's more often the case that employers fear if they hire someone who is overqualified he or she will quit as soon as a better offer comes along. Others worry the candidate may get bored or become dissatisfied with the position's pay.

So how do you get past managers who want to stamp you with the "O" word? Here are some of the suggestions:

  • Simplify your resume. If you have an advanced degree such as a master's, don't list it on your resume. If asked, don't lie, but you want to at least get an interview and a chance to explain why you are willing to take a job that you may be overqualified for.

  • In your cover letter or if you get an interview, acknowledge that you may appear to be overqualified. But stress that you are willing to work hard and at a lower position. And you have to mean what you say.

  • Address the pay issue. Be upfront that you are willing to work for less. Without sounding desperate explain that given the economy, you have realistic salary expectations.

  • This recession has been a humbling experience for the highly experienced professional. So my last tip is: Watch your attitude. Hiring managers are flooded with applications and they don't have time for someone who might look down on the position they are filling.

    Think of it from that person's perspective. It costs money to fill and then refill a position. You may say you are willing to work for anything, but they can tell if you're just buying time until you can get a better job.

    Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post. She can be reached at singletarym@washpost.com.

    SOURCE: Bloomberg News