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Why it’s sometimes harder to get a job you’re ‘overqualified’ for

When I quit my job, I didn’t think about the challenges of moving down the career ladder.

Why it’s sometimes harder to get a job you’re ‘overqualified’ for
[Source images: MirageC/Getty Images; AlexLinch/Getty Images]

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The prevailing belief is this: Don’t hire overqualified workers. They’ll be bored. They’ll be dissatisfied. They’re flight risks.

But isn’t this for the candidate, not the company, to decide? Why are we comfortable believing there’s more satisfaction to be found in a job that consistently strains us past the limits of mental capacity, time, and stamina? Hasn’t the Great Resignation shown us that we can’t keep this pace?

I quit my job in late 2020 along with millions of American workers. I had spent eight years doing editorial work in tech, startups, and online publications. I started as a technical writer, became copy editor, then managing editor, then content strategist—a predictable sequence for a career like mine.

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Less than a decade in, I could manage enormous editorial projects, start publications from the ground up, hire and manage teams. But I was exhausted. With each step up came more responsibility, more work, more hours on the job. The stress of ladder-climbing eroded me, and I maxed out at 29. How was I supposed to make it to 65?

My goal has never been the C-suite or a VP seat. I want to be good at my job, satisfy my creative inclination, and maintain a solid equilibrium. My ambition is to be well-rested, well-read, and well-written, to have healthy relationships and an active intellectual life. 

We assume natural paths travel upward. We’re so used to the vertical career climb that other rhythms feel suspect. At least now, the workforce is starting to recognize lateral career moves, but what about professionals who want to move down a peg—or two, or three?

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When I quit my job, I was not directionless. I was very clear about what I wanted: Room to breathe. And I was happy to take a pay cut to get it.

I applied for copyediting jobs. I love the work. It’s tough, it’s cerebral and creative, and it’s the job where I felt most balanced. Copyediting is an art, one that can be practiced at any level. I wanted to find a good role and stay there. In subsequent interviews, it wasn’t my skills that were questioned, but my motivation: Why in the world would you want the job you had six years ago?

I’ve never had a harder time proving myself to an interviewer. I’m not the first to experience this, of course. When Amy deCastro, who had spent a decade in human resources, reentered the workforce after two years away, she too struggled to get past the gatekeepers. “Their interpretation of what I had to offer was too much, or maybe I would be overpaid. But in reality, I never even had the opportunity to [explain why I wanted the job] because I wasn’t even given the opportunity to step into that process.”

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She heard the same rehearsed lines I did: “Your experience is a bit too senior. We think you’d be bored in this role. I don’t think it would really be the scope and the depth that you’re used to.” But deCastro felt that should be her decision. “It was very frustrating for me to have put myself out there, not even to be given the opportunity,” she says. “Yet, on paper, I had my senior professional in HR certification. I had ten years of global experience with great companies. I was very involved externally. I felt like, ‘Gosh, they’d be getting a great person.'”

By weeding out overqualified workers early in the hiring process, employers are missing out on experienced, highly skilled workers who are certain about their professional goals.

DeCastro has since ascended the ladder and is now the VP of HR, global business, at Schneider Electric, where, she says, she works to ensure that being overqualified “isn’t an issue.” In some cases, it can be an advantage. DeCastro knows from her own experience how challenging it can be, so when an overqualified résumé lands on her desk, she doesn’t dismiss it. “Yeah, they’re overqualified, but they’re going to bring in so much that I’m good with that. I see the passion.” DeCastro believes qualification is about what a candidate can add to the company, not whether they’ve done the job before. In fact, she’s found that overqualified team members are ideal mentors and can help develop and expand teams. 

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The last time there was a mismatch between candidate interest and qualification was during the Great Recession, when there was a surplus of talent in the market. In the early 2010s, many employers refused overqualified workers, sure that an overqualified workforce could only result in disengagement, job dissatisfaction, and flight risk. But it happened anyway: Ten years later, the workforce as a whole is disengaged, dissatisfied, and already out the door. 

Oliver Hahl, associate professor of organization theory, strategy, and entrepreneurship at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, has studied candidate capability and their commitment to organizations. He believes we may be witnessing a shift in what it means to be overqualified, and who gets to decide. Stylish titles at brand-name companies used to be attractive to job seekers. “Now, the evaluation of jobs seems different,” he says of the Great Resignation.  

Employees just don’t seem to be as concerned with hierarchy, at least not to the extent they used to be. Instead of looking for the next step on the ladder or buying into hustle culture, many job seekers ask: Can I live the life I want? “I think in some sense,” Hahl says, “these steps back might actually be seen as more valuable to a job seeker.”

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I wasn’t able to find a full-time job as a copy editor. I went freelance and built a book of clients who weren’t apprehensive about my motivations. My skills match their needs. I’m overqualified for a lot of the work I do, though not all, and for the first time in years, I’m engaged in my work, I’m satisfied. I’m moving at my own pace.

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