High unemployment leads to workers with extra skills for the job

Carolyn Shanley, who has a master’s degree, accepted a part-time clerical job as administrator of Marshfield’s Community Preservation Committee. Carolyn Shanley, who has a master’s degree, accepted a part-time clerical job as administrator of Marshfield’s Community Preservation Committee. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / October 30, 2011

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I n April, Donna Guran moved from the San Francisco area to Braintree so her husband could take a new job engineering software for video games. She thought she’d find a job without too much trouble, but she was wrong.

Unable to wait any longer, she went to a temp agency. Guran’s experience lies in publishing - helping authors develop their manuscripts and forecasting finances. She found a temporary job with a publisher, but it’s clerical. She enters data and mails packages - not the work her English degree and publishing certificate qualify her to do.

Overqualified workers have become commonplace in this historically poor job market. A survey released earlier this month by the employment website showed that among job-seekers who believed economic volatility would affect their search, 45 percent said the market would make them more likely to accept a job for which they were overqualified.

For workers under 65, high unemployment has dragged on longer than at any time in their adult lives, federal statistics show. Now 9.1 percent, the jobless rate has reached 8.8 percent or higher for 30 consecutive months and counting, compared with 21 months in the recession of the early 1980s. While unemployment reached a higher peak back then, the crisis receded faster than it has following the recession of 2007-2009.

In today’s market, Guran is “of course grateful to have a job,’’ she said. But the work doesn’t challenge her. “It’s not anything that requires any decision-making. I guess that’s the biggest difference.’’

Among the other differences? The security and the pay. She has a four-month contract and earns half what she used to.

Yet Guran hopes getting her foot in the door might lead to something permanent, especially if the company sees she can lend a hand with more complex tasks.

Conventional wisdom says people with extra skills will keep looking for work and leave as soon as they find something better. That’s often true, according to Mary Truslow, recruiting manager at Hollister, a Boston-based staffing company. But overqualified workers can be a boon when a company grows, she said, because they move into new positions and grow with the business. In that case, she said, “someone overqualified is perfect.’’

Being overqualified can be less perfect for the worker. Jon Bryan, a management professor at Bridgewater State University who specializes in global employment conditions, said some people who lost their jobs in recent years have settled for new jobs that are far different in substance and salary.

In manufacturing, where American jobs have continued a long march overseas, many laid-off workers have turned to the service sector. There, they find lower-skilled or unskilled jobs, Bryan said.

Some former manufacturing workers have trained for jobs as medical technicians or nurses. But even in health care, one of the strongest fields for new employment, the outlook has changed. While the aging population makes it hard to envision a massive decline in medical jobs, Bryan said, the market could still depress wages, as it has elsewhere.

The “new normal,’’ he said, “is the expectations of wage increases, and wages in general, are substantially lower. I don’t see that changing.’’

To make matters worse, he said, some workers who want to relocate for a job can’t sell their homes.

When Carolyn Shanley applied for a part-time clerical job in her hometown of Marshfield, she considered deleting her master’s degree from her resume. As it turned out, many of the 80-odd other applicants had master’s degrees, too.

The municipal job as administrator for the Community Preservation Committee caught her eye for several reasons. First, she was looking for part-time work to balance career and family. The job involves working toward goals she believes in, such as preserving open space and historic buildings. Plus, it’s local, so she can be available for her kids, and she’ll use some of her skills in marketing communications.

Shanley got the job. The committee wasn’t too worried about her being overqualified, because they knew it was the kind of work she was looking for.

“Most people were overqualified, to tell you the truth,’’ said Tom Whalen, chairman of the committee. The group was surprised to get so many applicants for a part-time job that pays just over $13 an hour with no benefits, he said. Some applicants were willing to commute from the North Shore or Cape Cod, even with the price of gas.

The previous administrator also brought extra skills to the job, Whalen said, so the committee grew accustomed to the positive side of hiring overqualified workers.

“Their professionalism makes my job a lot easier,’’ he said. “It’s just very helpful, you know? They do a lot of anticipation that I don’t really have the time for.’’

For Whalen, overqualified applicants are a good problem to have. For some communities, it’s a problem they wish they had.

Brockton’s residency requirement for public workers hurts the applicant pool, according to Maureen Cruise, director of personnel. New employees from outside Brockton must move to the city within a year, or their employment is terminated. Again, the housing market presents a problem. So does the preference for laid-off city workers, who can apply before the general public, she said.

“I don’t think we’ve had the stack of resumes other people are getting,’’ said Cruise.

No matter how large or small the stacks of resumes sitting on managers’ desks, surveys suggest the people whose names are on those resumes probably don’t have high hopes. The latest Economic Confidence Index from Gallup, out Oct. 11, rated Americans’ confidence in the economy at minus 49 points, 20 points lower than a year ago. Three out of four people polled said the economy was getting worse.

Bryan suggested some strategies for job-seekers. Be open-minded, he said. Demonstrate an understanding of “the new normal,’’ which could include accepting a lower wage than in the past. Emphasize the skills and talents from previous work that translate into the new job.

Many people take jobs unrelated to their previous work, he said, because they realize they’re doing the best they can for themselves and their families.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at

Just thankful to have a job

A survey appearing on determined that a significant number of job-seekers are, or feel, overqualified for jobs they would accept. The survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of Glassdoor Sept. 19-21, 2011, among 2,291 adults ages 18 and older.

Ninety-one percent of respondents who were unemployed but looking said recent volatility in the economy and financial markets would affect their ability to find a job. Of those, the percentage who said:

80 It will take me longer to find a job.

63 There will be fewer jobs available.

54 Base pay will be lower.

45 I will be more likely to accept a job I’m overqualified for.

Fifty-six percent of respondents who were employed said the volatility would affect their job or career. Of those, the percentage who said:

30 It will slow my career advancement.

28 It will put my job in jeopardy.

25 My pay/commission will be reduced.

22 The number of hours I work will be decreased.

19 The number of hours I work will be increased.


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