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Discover the Over-Qualified

By Kit Harrington Hayes

What if we could change the rules that typically govern employment practices? I’m thinking specifically about some iron clad unwritten rules about options for employees toward the end of their careers. One of the unwritten rules is that a person can go up but she can’t go down in rank. Along with that, goes the organizational assumption that earnings go only in one direction. Another is that positions are full-time, period. And, incidentally, full- time in the USA is not 40 hours a week but almost 50.

Employment and demographic statistics are projecting a shortage of knowledge workers with the massive (70 million!) retirements of baby boomers starting now and continuing over the next 25 years. At the same time, surveys of boomers show they want to keep working . . . but they want to work differently. What might that look like?

As a career development professional, I have worked with hundreds of clients in their mid fifties through mid sixties who have lost their jobs during major downsizings and merger manias. Many have expressed the strong desire to find a new position that is a step or two back in level from their previous position.

One gentleman had been Vice President of Engineering in a high tech company and wanted to “go back to the bench” (his words) as an individual contributor. Another had been at SVP level of a major banking institution and wanted to take on a branch management role, perhaps in a community bank. Each was financially secure and comfortable with the financial realities of earning less money at this stage in their lives and careers.

The banker conducted a traditional job search. He used the internet to source job leads and sent resumes and cover letters applying for jobs he felt confident he could do; all of the positions were at levels below the most recent position on his resume. His cover letter addressed his desire to step back, yet no one called him to interview. He scheduled a few networking meetings but none of the people he spoke with encouraged him to go forward with his idea.

The VPE took a different tack and developed a compelling value proposition. He offered to work for free for three months in exchange for the opportunity to learn a new software technology he wanted to master. He called all his friends, mostly former colleagues from one or another of the companies he’d worked for on his way up the corporate ladder. Some of these were now leading start-ups or in other influential roles in the industry.

He worked his network effectively and eventually landed in a start-up receiving no pay. He sat in the IT area and systematically taught himself the software he wanted to learn. Informally, he helped the CEO who was preparing to take his company public. Within three months he was on the payroll as an individual contributor. He emailed me shortly thereafter saying he was having the time of his life and couldn’t wait to get out of bed in the morning. He didn’t miss the corporate political scene one bit.

Why should this choice be such an anomaly? It seems that organizations have a difficult time believing that anyone (in their right mind) would want to plateau or go backwards. There doesn’t seem to be room for the possibility that someone wants to do something different, and maybe something a little less demanding. Maybe they’ve been in the hot seat for long enough – they don’t want the pressure any longer. They may also be ready to give up burdensome expectations such as international travel. Often, with their kids launched, they don’t need the incomes they once were driven to earn.

One argument I’ve frequently heard from the hiring side is that the individual will disappear as soon as a job comes along at the higher rank and income. The belief here is that the only reason people are going after lower level jobs is that there are no available jobs at their level. In other words, they just don’t believe the job seeker. They are missing the opportunity to hire someone who has tremendous skills, depth and breadth of experience and unbeatable work habits. It should at least be worth a conversation.

Another assumption is that the individual will be bored to tears in a lower level position. This argument ignores the fact that the higher level positions typically take people away from their passion (the science, technology or other expertise) and tangle them in corporate politics. Going “back to the bench” can be enormously satisfying. Countless people have said to me that “management is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Still another issue for employers relates to age. Employers see the senior level job seeker as potentially intimidating to the person who heads up the area – or perhaps the young manager herself was intimidated and unwilling to interview someone who could be her parent. This is a rigid and stereotypical point of view. The job seekers I’m talking about have had their run, they’ve been to the top of the mountain and achieved what they wanted to achieve. Now they want to give back. They want to be part of the action going forward but they no longer need to lead the charge. They are perfectly happy to mentor new leaders or to keep their mouths shut and do good work.

It remains such a hard sell, yet it makes so much sense. Staying in the game makes sense because these people love their field, their industry. Stepping down makes sense because they’ve had their turn. Ideally, if organizations could make it safe to talk about these radical ideas, planning could be done that would give everyone peace of mind. Instead, we will probably continue to see companies tossing their long-time employees into the street when they’re in their fifties and sixties.

How can we open employers’ minds to consider people for positions for which they are “over qualified”? That’s the word that now dashes so many hopes and blocks so many talented people from creating their ideal late-career situation. We’ll probably have to wait for the demographic shift to force the issue. In the early 1980’s employers were loathe to hire anyone over 22 because they wanted to hire and groom their own. When there weren’t enough 22 year olds coming out of the colleges, organizations “discovered” career changers and late bloomers. Eventually, they’ll discover the “over qualified.”