Afraid You're Overqualified?

Don't try to fudge your background. Instead, capitalize on your broad experience, and confront prospective employers' concerns head-on

Q: I'm 38 years old and have more than 16 years of managerial experience, three as a senior executive at a large public utility. Furthermore, I have a BS in information systems, an MBA, and a doctorate in educational technology.

Last June, I was laid off after a company restructuring and cost reduction. Since then, I've started my own business. It's doing well, but I'm not receiving nearly the compensation ($140,000) I was used to getting. Therefore, I've embarked on a search for a senior-level position in a mid- to large-size firm. It's proving more difficult than I ever expected. I'm afraid my experience and education may be overqualifying me for many positions. Should I tone down my resume -- and my expectations?

---- G.L., Los Angeles

A:Isn't it paradoxical that so much education and professional success can be difficult to market? Our experts offer their condolences, along with some encouragement and counsel.

First, the encouragement. Lee Hecht Harrison, a global career-services firm, has found that 60% to 70% of its clients land new positions with equal or higher compensation. Second: It isn't taking you longer than typical to find a new post. If you're committed to an executive job, you need to give your hunt a year or so, outplacement counselors at Lee Hecht say.

Third, remember that you have an unusual combination of business and technical talents that work to your benefit, says Chicago-area career counselor Patricia Kozik. She recalls a similarly multitalented client, a man with a background in art and marketing, who hired himself out as a consultant to remake a company's image. His typical contracts run about three years. Today, he's on his third one, she says, and building references as he goes.


  Now for the counsel our experts offer. The vote was unanimous against your hiding anything (i.e., lying) about your credentials. Especially as an executive-level applicant, you have to figure that any potential employer will check you out. Instead of fudging your background, work up two resumes that emphasize different aspects of your qualifications. One, for management jobs, should stress your MBA and management experience. The other, for jobs involving educational technology, should stress your doctorate and any related work.

For an executive position, the first big challenge is finding a suitable opening. Your timing is, unfortunately, bad in one way: The volatile stock market may be chilling executive demand, says job counselor Diane Kjos in suburban Chicago. "If I were running a company, I wouldn't be rushing to hire a $140,000 person until things clear up," Kjos says. On the other hand, your timing is perfect for all-important networking. What better reason to contact colleagues, vendors, and even former competitors than to wish them a happy New Year?

Once you've scouted out suitable positions, develop a job application that sets you apart from younger and cheaper candidates, Kozik says. Instead of merely listing your management jobs, your resume should tell recruiters all the leadership skills you've mastered through your years of experience.


  Another way to shine is with a dynamite portfolio. Kozik remembers one candidate who was able to provide a technology-update proposal -- memorable for its detail -- that he'd made in a previous position. Another portfolio had work in English and Spanish, always impressive in a global economy.

Perhaps even more important than your litany of accomplishments is a list of what you could do for your would-be employer. Look at it from the hiring execs' perspective: They want to know how you would be more useful to the organization than other job candidates.

Finally, if you aren't seeking an executive position directly involving education, be prepared to explain why you took the time to get a doctorate in educational technology, of all things. Be ready to answer how that degree will make you a better manager.

If you do want to go the ed-tech route within business, your best bet is companies with strong professional-development programs. Your bosses will love you for building their store of online courses. Just keep in mind that lots of ed-tech jobs now are being filled by younger people, at about $80,000 a year, Kjos says.


  Another path for someone with your credentials is academia. True, in university teaching you'd take a cut in pay -- probably 40% -- but you could do some consulting on the side, Kjos says.

A final note. Face the "overqualified" problem head-on, advises Martin Levine, a University of Southern California vice-provost and law professor whose specialties include job discrimination.

How? If you think potential employers are worrying -- and they probably are -- that you won't stay in a job, that you're set in your ways, or that you won't accept supervision by someone younger, then bring up those issues yourself and talk your potential employer out of such concerns. Explain that you've worked for bosses of all ages, or that you made one of your divisions a model of innovation, or ... you get the point.

That shouldn't be hard for a smart guy like you.

Have a question about your career or workplace issues? E-mail us at, or write to Ask Careers, Business Week Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information. Only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

H.J. Cummins has covered workplace, personal-finance, and work and family issues for more than a decade at Newsday/New York Newsday and the Minneapolis Star Tribune

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