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The Perils of Overqualification

In a bad job market, what's a work-seeking media pro to do when employers are scared off by his experience?

- July 23, 2003


The term may not be part of your daily conversation, but chances are—at least if you're a media person looking for work and applying for virtually any position in your field—the two letters are scrawled across your resume as it sits in the many editorial offices to which you've applied. Short for overqualified, OQ may well be the reason for more rejections than employers would like to admit and potential employees would want to know.

In this horrendous media job market, many out-of-work journalists and media professionals have given up looking for jobs they think will move their careers forward. Instead, many of us are at the point where we'll seriously consider any job—editing, writing, production, whatever—in any medium—radio, TV, online, print. The job market has thus sort of run amok. Employers are disappointed to find job postings result in hundreds, if not thousands, of resumes—which happens not just because there are a lot of media folks out of work, but also because we'll take anything. Applicants are disappointed because overloaded employers as often as not don't respond. Everyone's upset, and, it seems, employers are growing skeptical of resumes that seem, well, too good. What is this candidate thinking? What's his ulterior motive? Why would she apply for this job?! They're all so overqualified. Savvy employers can smell overqualifications a mile away, and they won't touch you. They simply mark your application OQ, and they put it into the "no" file.

A few months ago, for example, I applied for a desk-assistant job in radio. My background is as a magazine editor, but I often did significant reporting, too. So I thought my information-gathering skills, at least, would be transferable. I was well aware that I was in some ways overqualified for a DA job, but I also figured that since I have no experience in radio—up until now, I've only worked in print—it would be a good way to make a subtle career shift. (Will magazine journalism, after all, ever rebound to its late-'90s glory?). Finally, the DA slot was with a great organization, so I was willing to make the sacrifice to get my foot in the door.

The employer, however, was not willing to make that same sacrifice. I was informed that the company had narrowed down the candidates, and—you guessed it—I was not among them. I called the hiring manager to politely inquire about why they went with someone else. She recommended that I look for other jobs in the organization, jobs for which I was more qualified. I told her I had already done so, and that I had been turned down because I had no radio experience. I told her my only entree into her organization was through this position, the entry-level desk-assistant job. Obviously, I told her, I am just not meant to work here, am I? She was stunned by my catch-22 situation, but she also admitted she couldn't offer any advice other than to keep trying. (Maybe she thought another manager would see things differently.)

Shouldn't employers realize that in down times people are often overqualified for the positions they are in or to which they're applying? (They have obviously never been job-hunting in such a market.) What should an earnest—if overqualified—applicant do?

Here are some ideas.

When you're applying, first, if you know anyone at the organization, find out if being overqualified will hamper your chances for an interview. Next, mention in your cover letter that you are aware that your qualifications may be beyond what they're are looking for, but that you would embrace the opportunities to grow in such a position.

If you make it to an interview, and they ask about your overqualification, first ask what the potential employer saw in your application that caught his or her eye. If you know this at the beginning of the interview you can concentrate on skills and experience instead of those that won't be needed in such a position. Second, be candid. Most employers know that it is a tough market—and if they don't, you should probably reconsider working for them. Third, highlight your interest in the organization over the mismatch of your experience. Such an explanation always sounds so much more sincere in face-to-face contact. And, fourth, offer a commitment to stay on the job for a certain period of time. At the radio job I applied to, the hiring manager told me that they had to be conscious that an overqualified candidate who takes the job might well leave after only a few months when something better comes around.

We all know it's not a good time to be looking. But the fact that so many candidates are overqualified for the positions to which they are applying is only making it worse. People are getting dismissed as overqualified because they have some skills that a particular position has no need for while they are also lacking in the specific qualifications the position demands. Is journalism suddenly no longer a field that embraces transferable skills? I can't believe it is, and I have to hope that in the end, when media and publishing rebound, we all find jobs we are appropriately qualified for. But, in the meantime, I promise to be a good employee, even if I'm too experienced. It's not my fault—or any individual employer's fault—that this market is the way it is. We all just have to keep looking for the right break. And for something else to do in the meantime.

Scott Lajoie is a freelance writer looking for permanent editing jobs.

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