Your Money and careers writer for the NZ Herald

Overqualified staff can add value

Where can employees go once they reach the top of the ladder?
Photo / Getty Images
Where can employees go once they reach the top of the ladder? Photo / Getty Images

Overqualified workers. Those words strike at the heart of employers and candidates.

As companies are slowly beginning to hire again, managers face a new problem. Do they take on someone whose experience and qualifications are better suited to a more senior role?

Employers may get more bang for their buck from job candidates in a recession but they fear overqualified workers they employ now will up and move as soon as the economy improves.

"We constantly battle with clients to accept overqualified candidates as they are fearful that they will not stay," says Jane Walker, director of H2R Consulting.

That includes a number of senior executives whose roles have diminished in the market over the past five years.

Walker meets a number of former chief executives and general managers who have their own business interests or are financially secure, yet want to return to the workforce.

"They are looking to be involved in something they can add value to. Yet we consistently get this push back from organisations saying: 'They are way too qualified for the role.'

"Organisations think [these overqualified candidates] will be dissatisfied or will meddle in other areas of the business or are threatened by [the candidate's] experience."

Walker cites the example of a general manager who came up through the marketing ranks to lead an organisation and was made redundant in his early 50s. On one hand an employer might see this candidate as overqualified for a marketing manager's role. Or the employer could view him as someone who brings extra skills to the role.

Walker recommends restructuring the role and adding an extra project to use his skills rather than rejecting him. Extra responsibilities could include auditing the process and structure of the organisation or looking for cost reductions.

Research suggests employing overqualified workers can have significant benefits, says careers coach Jo Mills of Career Analysts. The use of "surplus skills" can result in higher overall performance.

"In addition, this group could be a key talent resource and be ready to move into more challenging positions when they arise."

A candidate who has already worked in a role during their career is going to add value to an organisation, says Tony Wai, managing director of contracting recruitment specialists Crackerjacks.

It's not only overqualified candidates who could leave for a better job in the future. Younger employees in particular look to move on or go overseas after a year.

"The days of staying a lifetime to earn your gold watch are long gone," says Walker. "If there isn't a long induction and they stay for a whole year and add lots of value, what is the problem with that?"

The workforce is getting older so employers have to face the prospect of more overqualified workers fronting up for interviews.

Another common scenario is a mother or father who has taken parental leave now wanting to ease back into the workforce. In that case the person may stay two years before seeking advancement, says Walker.

"The reality is that it's hard to keep anyone for more than two years whether they're overqualified or not."

Migrants who don't have "New Zealand experience" make up a third group of overqualified people whom recruiters see, says Wai. Employers could consider taking such a candidate on in a contract role with a view to giving them a permanent position.

There will always be overqualified workers who plan to jump ship as soon as possible. They may hold grudges for not being recognised sufficiently or paid enough, or don't perform because of boredom. But recruiters say they are easy to spot.

"When you meet them it is easy to understand their motivation when you do your due diligence," says Walker.

"Consult with their referees and ask them what the candidate's motivation is for wanting to apply for this role. The referee may say: 'They just need a job.' That is okay for a contract, but not for a permanent role."

Walker has interviewed a number of former middle managers in Wellington and their bitterness at having to look for work beneath their experience showed.

"It is hard to hide it. Attitude is what people are employed for and it doesn't matter which level you are on."

One of the big problems is taking a pay cut. Some candidates will have been without an income for a while and can adjust. But others will have seen their spending increase to match their income and can't downsize their expectations.

Donna Whittle, director of Fashion Personnel, sees reluctance among employers to pay people less than they are worth. As a result they shy away from overqualified workers.

"It is almost embarrassing to take them on, although it is different if they are at the end of their career," says Whittle. "At the end of their career they may not want to travel as much or work such long hours."

Walker says people applying for roles beneath their qualifications and experience know what the remuneration is going to be and have accepted it.

But employers can also offer bonuses for additional projects that bring a direct financial return.

"If that project adds $1 million to the bottom line, maybe you could consider paying a percentage of that as a bonus."

Candidates who find themselves overqualified for a role that they really want need to focus their CVs on what they have achieved and match that to the employer's requirements, says Wai.

"We don't say to tone down CVs. We get them to refocus it to look at what they want going forward."

- NZ Herald

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