should employers hire overqualified candidates?

A reader writes:

I’m currently hiring for a policy analyst position. Our position description says that we expect a graduate degree in public policy or related field, and at least 2-5 years of work experience.

In the stack of applications, we’ve received several from people who have significantly more work experience than I do. In an ordinary labor market, I’d say that they were overqualified, and have the standard concerns — they don’t really understand the position, they will want more money than we can offer. But in this economy, I get that there are people who understand the money and the job, are overqualified, but want it anyway. And I don’t want to discriminate on the basis of age. Any suggestions for how to decide if they’re worth considering? What interview questions should I be asking if I do interview them?

You can read my answer to this question over at the Intuit QuickBase blog today.

And what’s more, three other careers experts are answering this question there today too. Head on over there for answers…

{ 47 comments… read them below }

  1. Dawn*

    One of the more poignant things I’ve ever heard from someone in regards to this issue is “Do you have four years’ experience, or do you have one year’s experience four times?” Just because someone’s been around the block a few times doesn’t mean they bothered to learn anything on their journey.

    1. Lindsay H.*

      Great point! Experience and job history are not always the same. I may have a lot of experience, but I may have gotten it in numerous locations in a short amount of time.

  2. Joey*

    There’s not necessarily anything wrong hiring someone who plans on moving on to something better. I’ve hired a few overqualified people who wanted something better but were of such value it was worth it to bring them on anyway. As long as they’re upfront about moving on and you plan correctly it can feel like you’re both getting a great deal.

    1. Mike C.*

      That, and don’t people almost always move on to something bigger and better as they become for experienced in their field?

      If leaving is such a critical issue for an employer, they can always use a contract.

    2. Stacy*

      My experience in the non-profit arts administration sector, (along with having worked in animal welfare where there is a high burnout rate), has been that “movement” can help an organization grow. Since we aren’t going back to the days when people worked for one company for their entire entire adult life, (or a good portion of it), why not embrace the changes and good things that this movement brings? People have diverse experiences and skills that they can bring to a position, even if they are only in the role for a few years. And ultimately, it’s probably good for the employee themself, in the long-term, to realize the need for expanding/changing their expectations of a job as their life and interests, (both inside and outside of work), change.

  3. Suzanne*

    Yes, employers should hire overqualified candidates, especially
    in this poor economy!
    I was out of work for a few months several years ago and I was completely willing to do anything from work in retail (not my field) to working as a receptionist, to administrative assistant…anything! I know several people at one business where I applied for a job for which I was overqualified and they told me that I would never be considered because professionals are never considered for non-professional positions. I assumed they would look at my qualifications and background as a plus and be thrilled that they could get more bang for their buck. Not so.

    At the time, I applied for other positions not in my field and explained in my cover letter that my former employer had closed up and that my field was dying and that I was seeking to use my skills in other areas. I did have a couple of interviews and there usually was some discussion as to if I’d stay or not (I always assured them I would). I would love more than anything to have a full-time job with benefits now, but have had to settle for part-time, no benefits. I keep trying, but the last interview I had, the interviewer wanted to know why I was looking for a job when I’d only been at this position for a little over a year. I’m also in my mid-50s, so the clock is ticking faster and faster.

    All this leaves me to wonder what a person is to do if he/she is laid off, unable to find a position in his/her field, but looked down on if unemployed or underemployed. How in the world do you ever get out of that hole?

    1. The gold digger*

      Suzanne, I had an interview a few years ago where the recruiter asked why I wanted the job. I wanted to scream, “Because I was laid off a year ago and there is nobody paying my bills!”

      I swear the only people who ask that question have never been involuntarily unemployed.

      1. anon-2*

        Yes, I was in an interview like that — for a four-week contract when I was unemployed.

        One of the most bizarro experiences in interviewing in my life. The guy wondered why I was applying for such a position.

        “I needed the money, bozo.”

        (with due respect to Bozo the Clown).

  4. ChristineH*

    Suzanne makes a valid point – I think some people apply for positions for which they’re overqualified in order to get their feet wet in another field or a different role within or close to their field. This is my situation; I was originally planning on having a career in direct social work, but decided that my skill set is better suited in other areas within nonprofits or human services that doesn’t involve client contact.

    Another concern relating to the concept of “overqualified” are those with higher levels of education than the position requires. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve passed on an otherwise interesting job opening because it only requires a Bachelor’s degree (I have a Masters). I’ve been in that situation, and it’s a little intimidating when the interviewer questions your reasons for applying. Showing confidence in your answers is key.

  5. Dana*

    Argh. I am looking for a position like this and never get any calls. I always assume they’re hiring people with a lot more than “2-5 years.” I understand that that’s how it works now but that seems to leave people like me who are “slightly experienced” looking for entry level positions.

      1. N*

        I had this issue up until recently too, in the same field. I recently received my Master’s and have about 2-3 years work experience. It seemed like most organizations either wanted entry level experience (right out of undergrad) or 5+ years for more mid-senior level positions. There wasn’t a lot of space in between. I had a filler job to hold me over though, and I just kept applying. Luckily, I was offered the policy job of my dreams about two weeks ago – after about six months of searching. Keep at it, it will happen eventually!

        1. Hilary*

          I’m in exactly this spot and it’s so good to hear that it can happen! The sooner the better, though..

  6. ruby*

    I am curious about your answer:
    “Some people take on managerial roles and realize they hate it and want to go back to only being responsible for their own work. Other people want to focus on their families or other interests and don’t want a job that’s all-consuming. And you won’t know who’s who unless you ask.”

    What do you think about someone who doesn’t fall into one of those groups – someone who wants the position because they are unemployed (or about to be) and they need a job. Since you didn’t mention that, I’m curious if you think about those candidates (which are likely a big percentage of the over-qualified candidates) are riskier than over-qualified candidates who are making a choice for other reasons to look for a different role.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ah, good question. Then you get into what you need from the position: Do you need someone who is going to commit for staying for a certain period of time? Is it going to be a problem if they take the job and leave in three months? If so, you have a candid conversation with the candidate about your concerns and explore what their plans would be if they were to get the job. Would they continue looking, etc.? And at that point, you’ve got to make a judgment call about whether they’re being honest with you or not. It’s tricky, for sure.

      1. Bonnie*

        I agree. My brother was in this situation where jobs at his experience level in his community just didn’t exist. He didn’t want to move for family reasons. When he interviewed he was told no one would hire him due to the risk of his leaving as soon as the industry made a turn-around. He finally got off unemployment by being underemployed but promising not to look for another job for at least a year. The employer is very happy because he got a bargain. My brother is grateful because he has a job. On the other hand he is also bored because he is so over qualified. Once the year is up, he will go back to job hunting. But because the employer was willing to have the discussion he gets the most qualified worker he has ever had in that position for a year.

        1. anon-2*

          … and perhaps, just perhaps, your brother can adapt his role to do what he is fully qualified for — or in a larger org, something might be available and he becomes the perfect fit (and a known quantity).

  7. GeekChic*

    I was sort of amused by Eva Rykr’s answer because she comments that the employer should be “upfront with the salary for the position” but then goes on to say that screening questions (such as “desired salary”) are important for weeding out inappropriate candidates.

    I would argue that if an employer wants to be “upfront” about salary, they should include it in the job posting!

    1. Malissa*

      Oh what a glorious world that would be! No longer having to waste an hour applying for a position that would never pay enough to be seriously considered.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      True, but Eva might have meant saying, “The salary for this position is X. Is that in line with what you’re looking for?”

      Totally agree about being up-front on salary.

    3. The gold digger*

      My sister is a nurse practitioner. It baffles her that I would apply for a job not knowing what the pay is. “Why would you waste your time on a salary that’s too low?” she asks.

      I guess things work differently in the medical field. I maybe should have made a different career choice.

      1. GeekChic*

        I tend to work in sectors where salary information is public knowledge so I have very little patience with employers that don’t release salary information in the job posting.

  8. Steve Berg*

    I am one of those whose job (software development) was eliminated because of the economy. I quickly learned that I made a big mistake by not keeping up with the changing technology. I spent a year in school getting myself updated and am now in an intense job search. Am I over-qualified (23 years) or entry level (great academic success with C#, Java, Web development etc., but no work experience in those precise areas)? I love the nitty-gritty work of programming, and in the three jobs I had in 23 years I quickly became a loyal employee.

    1. Jamie*

      I certainly hope you find an employer that can appropriately vet your skills.

      There is a lot more to a good programmer than the language itself. In fact, not to minimize the work involved in learning a new language, but that’s the easy part.

      All good programmers (regardless of language) have a logical thought process and attention to the minutia. A good hiring manager should value a top notch programmer with proven skills – even if the specific languages are recently learned – over an adequate programmer who has a little more experience with the specific platforms being used.

      I look at it this way: Maybe the adequate guy with more practical experience is a little tighter and move valuable coming in the door. But the good programmer will make the transition and pretty soon both are at the same level on the value apex. But the good programmer will continue to improve and adequate tends to plateau earlier. Inside of a year good outpaces adequate every time.

      That’s oversimplified – but my point is I’d take inherent talent and proven performance over a slightly shorter learning curve during the first few months any day of the week.

      1. Steve Berg*

        My feelings exactly, Jamie! I know how programming logic works and how to produce readable and reliable code. And the first class in the software program where I studied was Programming Logic, independent of any language.

      2. Anonymous*

        As happened to my team recently…. “We’re changing course a bit. Everyone go learn C#, .NET and Windows Azure. And by the way, we’ll be shipping in about six months.”

    2. Erik*

      Languages like C++, C#, Java, etc. are just tools for getting work done. Nothing more.

      Software engineers have a great set of skills, especially being creative and detail oriented. Good engineers like to push themselves and learn new technologies or skills to make themselves better.

  9. HDL*

    I love this question and the answers. I recently applied for a policy analyst position for which I might be considered overqualified in the education category (I have a PhD and the ad only requested a Masters or a Bachelors plus a few years of experience). However, I would love to use my research background to contribute to and learn more about science policy! Plus, I am relocating and the job is located right where I want to be. The salary requirement is pretty much a moot point. In my experience, positions of this kind advertise significantly better salaries than federally funded post docs receive!

  10. Looking for a job*

    I really loved this article. I am in the same position. I am over-qualified for basic customer service. I would not mind perusing supervisor, management, training, a position but they are rare to find posted. A lot of the times they move you from within. But I can’t get in because I am overqualified for the initial position. I have management and training in retail 20 years ago but that is not helping me at all.
    I can’t get other positions like admin assist or training because I do not have enough experience specifically in those positions. Even though there can be transferable skills.
    Now to my question ……..And I am being light hearted…..take this casually.
    Are you supposed to say that you do not want to move on (promoted or lateral move different position) and you will do only the job given and nothing more and you have no ambition to think out of your job range? Will that secure them that you won’t move on?
    Or dumb yourself down? Answer the questions so you are not sounding too qualified or too ambitious so you can try to squelch any questions’ about your wanting a job that is not at your qualification level?
    How do you answers some of these questions without saying, no I will not get bored ( how do you know that now anyway) or yes I will get bored and I am looking for a promotion, job postings after a year.
    I am just putting this out there. Not complaining as such.. just wondering….

    1. ARM2008*

      I recently joined the ranks of the employed and overqualified. When preparing for the interview I considered what direct tangibles the job would offer me (entry back into the workforce after a hiatus, a paycheck, the chance to get health insurance) and what growth opportunities I might be able to find (expand my SQL chops and grow into a team lead position). I emphasized the second set of these in my interview and follow-up.

      It’s a contract position so I can justify moving on if other opportunities come up. On the other hand, even though I would prefer to move on to greener pastures I could end up there for a while either by choice or by necessity.

  11. Another Anon*

    I really like your answer, Alison, because it goes against the tendency to fit people into prejudice boxes. We don’t (any more) avoid hiring women for technical positions because men are more technical. We look for people with technical skills. We shouldn’t avoid hiring older workers who might want too much money but instead screen for people who want more than we can pay.

  12. AG*

    Forgive me if it sounds naive, but “we’re afraid someone overqualified will leave after the economy recovers” is a concern that can easily be mitigated by providing time-based incentives, such as delayed vesting of 401(k) matching. In my office, the 401(k) match vests at 20% a year until you get the full match after 5 years.

    It sounds a lot like HR types don’t know what they really want, or they want the whole package and end up fighting over the same handful of perfect candidates with a lot of other companies. Its no wonder the few jobs that are out there still can’t get filled.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, realistically, if someone overqualified takes a job just because it’s all they can get right now but wants to leave once they can find a better fit, delayed 401k vesting isn’t likely to stop them from leaving. (Depending on how far away from their aspirations the stop-gap job is, of course.)

      It’s not about employers not knowing what they want, at least not much of the time. There are lots of hiring managers who think — not unreasonably — “I could fill this job with someone whose career stage is perfectly suited for it and know that they’ll be satisfied and happy for at least a couple of years, so why should I put the time investment into training someone who’s likely to leave in six months?”

  13. Suzanne*

    My two cents here as someone who has been unemployed for a time. I think employers over worry about how long a person who was unemployed will stay, especially an older worker. Most of us never want to go through the unemployment ringer again, and unless the job of a lifetime hits us in the face, or we hate the position you hired us for, we aren’t likely to leave. For many of us, if we could have found a position that meets our experience level, etc. we would not be in your office interviewing for your job. The jobs simply are not out there. I know I’m looking at it from the other side, but employers, try the overqualified. You might be pleasantly surprised!

    1. Susan*

      To add to your original post, I also thought that employers would be thrilled to get more “bang for their buck” with an o/q applicant. I think what hiring staff aren’t taking into consideration is someone’s work history – are they generally a job jumper or do they have good tenure at places? As someone in the same underemployed position, I’d be glad to get a foot in the door at a good company in a lower position in order to learn the company and its products/services/organizational structure and then hope to move up within the company in order to continue being a contributor using the knowledge I’d gained. Personally I don’t think it’s fun to be the new person – why would anyone want to job hop year to year and continue starting over? Using employment contracts was a great suggestion posted earlier. Many large companies require an employee to be in a position 12 months before they can transfer to another internal job. These seem like easy solutions. And, not many of these “markets” are coming back immediately; it’s not as if 40% of the current employees are going to suddenly jump ship because housing is going to take off again!

  14. Kelly O*

    What I’m curious about sometimes is how the level of education and experience is determined.

    I recently saw a position open that fit right in with my experience and would have been something I’d like to at least interview for – it’s in the field I’d like to enter, and is an administrative support role. The commute was even reasonable.

    A Bachelor’s Degree is the minimum requirement. Non-negotiable. They even advertise that they are willing to meet with Liberal Arts and other Humanities degrees, even though that is not at all related to the business. I have an Associates in Business Administration and well over ten years of experience in administrative support. I’ve used every software program they outline.

    I emailed them, even though I didn’t have the Bachelor’s, explaining my experience and that I’d like a chance to talk with them. Got a rather terse note back that my education requirements did not meet their minimum.

    So, in determining what qualifies someone for this position, they would rather have a brand new graduate with no experience and a degree in an unrelated field. I really don’t see how that makes any sense at all.

    I realize this is tangential to the original question; I just am sort of unclear how determining qualifications and requirements works sometimes.

      1. Susan*

        Kelly O – I’ve run into the exact same problem – Assoc Degree plus 12+ yrs experience but not interviewable due to the lack of a Bachelor’s. There’s been no other foreseeable option but to put myself massively in the hole with student loans and will graduate with my BS in a couple of months.

        1. Harry*

          I can speak from the other side of the fence. As a hiring manger, my question would be well knowing that the min. qualification for most decent jobs is a bachelor, why haven’t you obtained it? Granted some people may have undeniable circumstance where they just couldn’t complete it but otherwise it begs the question. I had once instance where I thought the applicant’s work experience allowed me to overlook his lack of a bachelor degree. He turned out to be a disaster. Lack of work ethic, commitment, and sense of ownership. It sort of affirmed my position to question people who have yet to complete their bachelor degree.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Let’s not extrapolate from anecdotal evidence to make sweeping generalizations though. I’ve worked with some great people without degrees.

  15. Anonymous*

    OP here. Thanks for all the comments.

    I definitely wish we had posted a salary range on the job listing, but I’m not the one who made that call. (I also think we should pay more, but again…) I’m not a HR person — we’re a small nonprofit without a HR department.

  16. Anonymous*

    I have a Masters in Social Work and in my job search have found I am under- qualified and lack the three to five years experience for positions requiring that level of education but on the other hand, I am over-qualified for those positions that require a BSW. I am over-qualified for administrative positions and for a position at the local retail stores, etc.. I was once asked in an interview for a customer service position, “do you think you may be going backwords by wanting this job.” I feel frustrated. I was a high school drop-out who was told education would make life better. For some lucky people, maybe. For me, I found it easier to get work as a high school drop-out.

    If things do not improve, we unemployed college graduates will be the “New Homeless.” How sad!

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