Struggling through the ‘overqualified epidemic’


Jean Williams, an “over 50” professional with a background in regulatory affairs and communications, has been looking for a job for the past eight months. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)
June 10, 2012

Jean Williams has a friend with a PhD who is working as a bartender to pay bills, and another who is working as a substitute teacher for $100 a day. And after eight months of diligently looking for a job and landing only two interviews, she is facing a decision familiar to many college graduates: Within months, she may need to move in with her mom.

She and her friends from the 40Plus job club they founded together each have 20-plus years of professional experience. Yet they find themselves competing with college students and recent graduates for part-time jobs and jobs they are clearly overqualified for.

Most recently, Williams, who lives in Arlington, spent eight years at a director-level regulatory affairs and compliance job at an industry trade association in the District. Now she’s applying for a variety of jobs in government relations, legislative and public affairs, and communications and public relations. Some were “two steps below me. I would have taken them, and done them happily,” said Williams, who describes herself as “over 50.”

Such is the world of the overqualified and underemployed, where a 25-year-old and a 55-year-old both feel they’re stuck with work that doesn’t measure up to their credentials.

Some 54 percent of adults who lost a job in the recession and landed another consider themselves overqualified for their current job, compared with 36 percent of other workers, according to a 2010 Pew Social Research survey. Half of the young adults ages 18 to 34 have taken a job they didn’t really want to pay the bills, and one-fourth have moved back in with their parents, according to a separate Pew Research Center survey in 2012 titled “Young, Underemployed and Optimistic.”

“There’s an overqualified epidemic, unfortunately,” said Joan Freeman, director of McLean-based Gray Matters Coalition, which advocates for older workers. She said she sees it as a form of age discrimination, or a way to avoid hiring someone who could step up and steal away a younger manager’s job.

What’s unusual now is that people from both ends of the spectrum find themselves in the dilemma now. Some graduates from last year are still working in hourly jobs they expected to leave behind, and their colleague might be as old as their parents or even grandparents.

There were 8.1 million people working part-time when they would prefer full-time work in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet younger people are more optimistic about their future possibilities. Some 57 percent say they don’t earn enough now but believe they will in the future, versus 22 percent of those ages 35 to 64, according to the Pew research. The gap is reversed with more older people saying they don’t earn enough now and won’t in the future.

Freeman hears from people who were downsized from middle manager and senior manager jobs and cannot find a job at all, or one that is close to their previous one. Overqualified may mean many things — from a human resources manager’s concern that the new hire will move on as soon as she can to an expectation that she will be dissatisfied with less money.

“It will get better when the economy gets better,” said Freeman, who has worked as a recruiter for many years.

Williams is pragmatic about her situation, and sometimes laughs at the lack of common sense in job postings and hiring decisions. She points out that she would make “a great utility player on anybody’s team” with her breadth of experience and her ability to learn quickly.

When she moved to Tokyo, she taught herself Japanese and worked there as a freelance journalist for seven years. She’s taken jobs and developed them into something more interesting and worthwhile for herself and her employer, and she said she hopes for the opportunity to do so again.

“I have reinvented my career a couple of times now,” she said. “It’s not necessarily fun” but it may be necessary.

Yet today she said she thinks hiring managers are like Goldilocks, they have many choices so they want the person who’s just right, and has had the exact job title and skills listed in the posting. “There’s no foot in the door. There’s no transferrable skills” in this market, she said.

She sees openings that have “reach up” tasks added on and many that have “reach down” tasks like answering phones and “bringing in the jelly doughnuts.”

“I don’t think I’m too good to do anything,” she said. She said she knows young people will gladly take jobs like that, and so will she. Yet she’s been asked a few times why she’d consider a job she’s clearly overqualified for. The answer, she said, seems obvious: The job market is still dreary, she needs a job and she sees possibilities in the opening.

“You better believe I’m starting to consider part-time jobs,” she said. Once when an HR manager mentioned overqualified, she suggested: “Wouldn’t it be a great thing to have on hand a person who could pull a rabbit out of a hat?” In another case, she told an interviewer: “It comes down to would you really have a really good person for a year or ... a mediocre person for seven?”

Her friends from the 40Plus club said she’s either very brave or brazen. But Williams sees herself as candid and clear. Plus, she’s starting to see some employers and hiring managers as “underqualified” for what she wants.

She does not relish the possibility of moving in with her mother, an 80-year-old. She left home at 20 to go to college and hasn’t been back for more than a visit since. But with no extension on unemployment checks and no job in sight, “I won’t be able to afford to keep living here,” she said. If she’s living with her mom, she may be able to afford to freelance or take temp jobs.

“There are plenty of highly educated, well-qualified people who just have to go begging,” Williams said. “We’re all overqualified.”

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