Getting an 'Overqualified' Response

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 21, 2008

During more than a year of actively seeking a full-time job, Noluthando Crockett-Ntonga landed lots of interviews -- sometimes second and third interviews.

But she received no offers for the communications or project management openings she sought.

Instead, the former NPR White House correspondent heard repeatedly from recruiters and hiring managers that she was overqualified. She believed she was applying for jobs that matched her experience, so she decided to change her image and her approach.

"I really began to believe that the label 'overqualified' is a code word for other things," she said. Crockett-Ntonga, who had worked as a communications consultant for universities and members of Nelson Mandela's cabinet, said she thinks other things employers might object to include high salary expectations, resistance to new technologies and a pompous approach.

With layoffs rising and baby boomers wanting full-time jobs to replenish their dwindling nest eggs, more people are facing the job hunt curse of being called overqualified.

"People may be lowering their sights in this tough economy," said Barbara Herzog, a D.C. career consultant who works with people of all ages to find satisfying careers. "People are thinking it will be easier to get a lower-level job, but it ain't necessarily so."

Herzog calls overqualified "one of those convenient HR words" that could mean many things. "Overqualified may be codespeak for too expensive or too old," she said. Many job candidates lose out because they ignore the issue in a cover letter, interview or during follow-up discussions or e-mails.

If you believe your age raises concerns, address the issue directly or indirectly by talking about how well you work with and for younger bosses, or mentioning that your partner has health insurance coverage so you will not need it, Herzog suggested.

Crockett-Ntonga thinks candidates should skip the "how it used to be back in the day" comments and avoid looking like they expect people to do things for them.

If you think your salary expectations may deter an employer from hiring you, Herzog suggests addressing that, too. You could say, "I'm willing to take a lower salary or lesser position because I want to move into this area," for instance.

Focus your pitch on the value you bring, pointing out, "This is how I can make a difference to you," said John Owen, Tysons Corner branch manager for Robert Half International, a financial staffing concern. Keep the hiring manager focused on your talents and not your years of experience.

Know what projects your would-be employer has in the pipeline so you can discuss "what you can bring to the company now," Owens said.

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