Over 50 and overqualified?

Gray haired smiling woman at deskThe job market is improving for older workers, but many still deal with the concern that they may appear overqualified to a prospective employer. While the issue comes up for younger job seekers, too, it’s particularly common for job seekers over age 50.

To mount a defensive against this assumption, job seekers can best begin by putting themselves in the employer’s shoes.

What the employer worries about

Hiring an employee is a costly event for a company; the longer a new, effective employee remains in a job, the better able the employer is to achieve its HR goals and avoid further hiring costs.

If you appear overqualified, the employer may believe it’s more likely you could become bored in the job and look for a new position. Or plan to just get a foothold in the company at the hired position, and quickly work your way to a higher level. Or maybe even assume the position is capable of offering the greater complexity that you might crave and are capable of, but again, the employer needs this job filled, not the higher level one you may imagine it to be.

Speaking of expense, employers often also assume candidates who appear overqualified for a position are likely to expect the highest end of the salary range, or expect the employer to extend the range.

In addition, they are likely to wonder how comfortable and amenable you will be to taking direction from a (probably) younger and less-experienced, less-knowledgeable (possibly) manager.

So it can be a fraught prospect for an employer, despite the appeal of hiring someone who appears capable of hitting the ground running, who might even bring a terrific boost to the competence of a position and work group.

Be clear about your purpose

With a clear understanding of the employer’s potential assumptions, you have the opportunity to address them head on, while defining the strengths you bring to the position.

To begin with, it’s important that you are clear with yourself about why you might want a job with less responsibility than you’ve previously held. You might need to bring better balance to accommodate family demands, or personal life issues. This opportunity might represent a new beginning in a different location, role, or industry. Perhaps you missed working with customers or having a greater hands-on role in your work, or found managing people wasn’t a good fit. Or you might be in a situation where you need income right away.

Communicate from honesty and enthusiasm

Beginning with your cover letter all the way through interviews and salary negotiation, it’s important that you confront an employer’s likely assumptions, sincerely. If you send your well-polished resume with high-flying job titles—without an explanation—your application may not even make it past the first step.

  • Put the focus on what you want to do in the position, and how your background and skills can help the employer: How does this position fit you, your goals, skills, and interests? For example, you may want a stable schedule without travel while you care for family members, in a position that doesn’t demand the amount of responsibility you had previously. Even if need is driving your application, look for and articulate the aspects of the job you’re excited and curious about.
  • Research the position’s typical current wages in similar industries to confirm that your salary requirements are appropriate. To head off the assumption that you’d reject their offer, you can acknowledge you’re OK knowing the pay will be lower than you’ve had.
  • Be ready to communicate your willingness to tackle the position offered, rather than a higher level position. It’s helpful to state a desire to learn from the position and add value from that role, even if you hope to work your way up in the company. Taking this position seriously and making your contributions there count, is a good foundation.
  • Caution: Arrogance in the interview could easily undo all your other efforts. Practice interview responses to avoid coming across as having all the answers and being more experienced and knowledgeable than the hiring manager. Focus on how you operate as part of a team, and your openness to learning.
  • Some strategists recommend that a very experienced candidate offer a “temporary try out” to reassure the employer of your interest and demonstrate your ability to contribute quickly. Or you might offer to work for a specific time, with the understanding that you’ll move on once a project or goal has been completed.
  • You can also ask your references to address the overqualification issues in any conversation with the employer.

For more tips, check out CareerOneStop’s Older Worker.

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