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How to get a job if you're overqualified

Analyze your reasons for taking a step down the career ladder. Be honest with yourself and your potential employer.
Image: Woman at a desk
Stick to the job at hand and don't go on about past accomplishments.Emma Innocenti
/ Source: Forbes

One of New York job coach Robert Hellmann’s recent clients had an impressive résumé as a senior human resources manager. The client had logged 20 years, managed 30 people and commanded a budget of $10 million. But he found himself at a point in his life where he didn’t want the pressure that comes with a senior position. Instead, he was shooting for a job that only required eight years of experience and few managerial responsibilities.

Hellmann’s advice: Trim the résumé and focus it on the No. 1 must-do of job search: showing how you can help the employer. “We took out the emphasis on managing and leading and on having overseen the $10 million budget,” explains Hellmann, a vice president at national job coaching and outplacement firm, The Five O’Clock Club. “Those points created a picture of someone who was not right for this job.” His client landed the position. slideshow: See how to get a job if you're overqualified

For Hellmann’s client, the demotion in status was a choice. But for many workers nowadays, the job search drags on so long, they feel compelled to accept a lower pay grade and a lesser title. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data for March 2011, 46 percent of unemployed workers (those who say they are actively looking for work) have been searching for more than 27 weeks. That’s the highest percentage since the recession officially ended in June 2009, when only 29 percent of job seekers had been looking for more than 27 weeks (the number also hit 46 percent in April and May of last year).

Los Angeles job coach David Couper’s client is just such a worker. A senior sales manager, he had been pounding the pavement for months when he realized he was willing to take a job far beneath his previous position. “He was getting quite depressed being at home,” says Couper, the author of "Outsiders on the Inside: How to Create a Winning Career Even if You Don’t Fit In." With Couper’s encouragement, the client pursued a selling job the old-fashioned way. He walked into a store that was hiring holiday salespeople, introduced himself, and filled out an application, leaving his three-page résumé at home. In the interview, the client didn’t hide his background, but he didn’t play it up either. “He just said, ‘I’ve been out for a while. I’ll do anything.’” It worked; he got hired in a temporary position and soon moved up to full-time.

Coaches debate the wisdom of removing degrees, graduation dates and past jobs from CVs. Should you pretend to be younger than you are, lie about your years of experience, dye your hair? “For a good interviewer, that’s highly transparent,” says New York career coach Eileen Wolkstein, who is also the director of continuing education at New York University’s school of social work. (For a piece on how to find a job when you’re over 50, read our story here.)

Wolkstein’s advice: “Don’t lie.” Do recognize that the employer is worried that if she hires an overqualified person, that person will leave for a better job as soon as possible. Job seekers have to address this concern head on. Consider making an 18-month commitment. Explain that you will deliver a higher level of productivity than someone more junior, and promise to stick around.

Wolkstein points out that it helps to have a credible story. For instance, if you’re passionate about sculpting or playwriting in your off hours, explain that you are shooting for an administrative post with defined hours and benefits in order to support your passion for art. Employers understand that such a worker can lend balance and perspective in a busy office.

Couper advises being frank about the economy and how it is affecting your search. He suggests emphasizing your excitement about the job at hand, while expressing willingness to move up within the organization should an opportunity arise.

What about salary? Stick to the two most important rules of salary negotiation: Don’t bring it up, and then try not to be the first person to name a number. If the hiring manager broaches the topic, Hellmann suggests responding, “I know we’re going to work something out; salary is not going to be an issue.” Or, “I want to be paid what this position is worth in the marketplace.” (For more on negotiating a salary, see our stories here and here.)

Most important, from Wolkstein’s perspective: analyze your reasons for taking a step down the career ladder. Be honest with yourself and your potential employer. Says Wolkstein, “You have to know why, so you can do the best for yourself and for someone else.”

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