Thursday, June 04, 2009

Less is something and more is nothing

OR: What is it with hiring managers and the "overqualified" label?

By Boatboy

As the US economy continues to circle the drain, an (apparently) increasing number of people are running into the curse of actually being able to do their jobs. There are articles in The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications discussing how skilled professionals are editing their resumes and discussions of their experience and training in order to appear more appropriate for the lower-paying jobs that are increasingly the best opportunities available.

I recall a similar trend, now a decade or so old, when the dot-com bubble burst and it seemed all of Silicon Valley got laid off at once. The same effect was visible at the time: former CIOs were dumbing down their resumes to get LAN admin jobs. This time around, though, the trend seems universal when discussing anyone with more than five years' history in the workplace, regardless of profession.

The articles all discuss editing one's resume or CV to minimise the appearance of experience and qualifications. More than a few sections, and several comments, discuss removing some dates and some durations to combat ageism as well:

Too much of a good thing is wonderful, said Mae West. But that's not how hiring managers see it. Relevant work experience, advanced degrees and credentials - while prerequisites for many finance jobs - can disqualify as well as qualify. If a candidate previously held a role at a higher level than the one she's seeking, or her education or certifications exceed a position's stated requirements, she's unlikely to pass the initial software-driven screen most employers apply before even looking at an incoming résumé.

Moreover, many employers blithely use the word "overqualified" as a barely concealed synonym for "too old." That's the evident meaning when a hiring manager or HR person says an opening is "too junior for you," when you know it pays four times what you made in your last job. (This happened to me a few times.)

Personally, this sort of rescaling one's experience seems at once dishonest and pointless. Dishonest in that if one is prepared to discount one's own experience and effort to achieve what one has achieved then the situations employers fear are more likely to be manifested than if one is honest about one's history and willing to take a perceived step backward. Pointless, in turn, in that so many of the current review processes require listing years of experience with particular tools or procedures as part of the screening process, and so many are willing to follow up with reference checks and other screening methods, that simplifying one's resume without conveniently "forgetting" about what one edits out will only exacerbate the hiring body's concerns - and may well show up the potential dishonesty in the resume by inadvertently referring to information edited out of the documents.

I'm also more than a little disappointed in the presumption that overqualification is a valid cause for disqualification. Unless there is a serious miscommunication between the candidate and the hiring/screening party at the outset, then the disparity between the job requirements and the offered experience and skill set is a known quantity well in advance of the point where overqualification even gets suggested. If it isn't an issue for the candidate by then, then it shouldn't be for the interviewer.

At the same time, there is the problem that one needs a paycheck in this society. And the discussions with recruiters and hiring managers on the subject tell a no-win tale:

In the past eight months, Jamaica Eilbes, an information-technology recruiter for Milwaukee employment agency Manpower, has had to weed out more overqualified résumés than usual from the stacks that cross her desk each day. "I'd never feel comfortable putting a really high-level candidate into a lower level position," says Ms. Eilbes, who recruits for Manpower and other clients. "We don't want to take you on if we think you are going to jump ship."

But in recent months, Ms. Eilbes has seen more master's and doctoral degrees at the bottom of résumés instead of at the top. She's also seen candidates omitting or trimming job descriptions that showed they had substantial years of work experience. Résumés on which job descriptions taper off as they progress down the page raise Ms. Eilbes's suspicions. "How do I know I can trust them later down the road if there's something on their résumé they decided to take off so they could have a better chance at getting that job?" she says.

And then there's this gem:

In some cases, job seekers are being told by hiring agencies to tone down their résumés if they want to get hired. When Bridget Lee, 29, moved to New York from Shanghai eight months ago and put her application in at three temporary agencies, she was told to play down her work experience before they would send her résumé to potential clients. The temp-agency version of her résumé changed titles like "manager" and "freelance trend researcher" to "staff" and "office support" and omitted entirely her title as partner of a small marketing agency. "It's been a lesson for how I present myself," Ms. Lee says.

So if you're overqualified, you'll be bored and unlikely to stay in the position. But if you edit your docs to sound less overqualified, then you're lying to the hiring party and can't be trusted. Oh, and by the way that distrust comes from your doing what we told you to do, or from our doing it ourselves on your behalf.

For me, though, the single most infuriating perspective on the matter comes from The Atlantic's own Daniel Indiviglio:

This is alarming news for the U.S. economy. If job seekers are accepting positions at lower levels than their experience should dictate, then their talent and experience is not being fully utilized. That, in turn, means economic growth will be stunted. For growth to be maximized, all workers should be making full use of their capabilities.

How much will this harm growth? It depends on how long it takes for the economy to begin to expand at a rapid pace. Once employment returns to the 95% threshold, these job seekers can begin trading up and returning to positions for which their experience is more suited. That is, of course, if their résumé is not tarnished permanently by spending several years in a position that is a step back on their career path.

Those of us currently looking for work aren't really all that concerned about how fast we can spring back: we're worried about making ends meet now. And we'd much rather be underutilized than unutilized, since as long as we can work, economic growth, however stunted, will still be greater for the US and for ourselves than if we all sit on our duffs (waiting for the job we aren't overqualified for) drawing unemployment and starving to death.

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