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.

"You will paint wonderfully eloquent pictures if you do a little research."

And with more organizations operating with lean staffs, managers want to hire someone who can "wear multiple hats, take on more and more responsibility to get things done," he said. Being overqualified can be an asset if you show how those extra talents will be valuable to your future boss.

You may want to indicate that your experience makes you "very effective and efficient," so that you could do the job advertised and take on additional duties, Herzog said.

After being passed over for some great jobs, Crockett-Ntonga decided to improve her effectiveness as a candidate with some updates to her look and her technology skills. "I went on a campaign to learn as much as I could about new technology, to love it, embrace it," she said. She joined networking sites Facebook and LinkedIn, and adjusted her résumé so it would work better in some online applications. And she "snazzed up" her wardrobe, so it felt more current.

But perhaps most important, she said, was to let humor shine through. "I'm a really fun person to work with." She had been "so serious about everything," that some employers might not have thought she would fit their culture.

The result: Crockett-Ntonga landed a job last month in the policy communications office of CARE, the humanitarian organization.

Now as a board member of networking group 40 Plus of Greater Washington, she talks to members and guests about the importance of appreciating change and personal development. She said, "Learn to address the unspoken code words for 'overqualified' -- and if you are not willing to learn and embrace, even love the new technology, you may as well retire now."

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