Overqualified workers are on the career ladder but headed down

March 29, 1993|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

The look on the interviewer's face tells Harley McKinnie that, once again, she is about to be rejected for a job because she is overqualified.

Ms. McKinnie, who was laid off from her managerial job at an aerospace company in September, knows she is lost when she sees "this expression . . . that says: 'Did you invent dirt?' " and the interviewer tells her, "You should be doing my job."

Ms. McKinnie, who worked for 17 years in personnel at EGG Pressure Science in Gaithersburg and became a manager, has been "counseled" by some fellow job-seekers to omit some qualifications from her resume in an effort to get hired.

She has refused to do that because she wants a good job, but she has made no strict rule about what a "good" job is. "I'm leaving my mind open. . . . I know an architect who is stocking shelves at the local mall," she says.

Her story is typical of millions across the nation.

There are more well-educated, well-trained job-seekers -- and more people overqualified for the jobs they have -- than ever before. With 3.3 million unemployed professional and technical workers, on top of the approximately 20 million underemployed Americans, the Bureau of Labor Statistics warns that downward mobility could worsen.

Already, underemployment is having a profound impact. Managers report new tensions in the work place as overqualified employees push to gain the stature they feel they deserve. And the unemployed say they must adopt unusual job-hunting techniques, such as "dumbing down" resumes that might otherwise overwhelm recruiters.

Some economists say the current dislocation is part of a painful but beneficial transition to a more competitive economy.

But others, including many of the underemployed, say their plight portends a dangerous erosion of good jobs. For example, the 5.6 million Americans who were displaced from their jobs during the recent recession can expect to find new jobs paying, on average, about 14 percent less than their old jobs did, the greatest erosion of earning power since the Great Depression.

And no statistics can reflect the feelings of people such as Ms. McKinnie, who tell of the anxiety and the feeling of rejection that result from being labeled "overqualified."

"We are not percentage points," she says. "We are human beings."

Inside companies, the growing underemployment is a blessing and a curse. Employers looking to hire have the best -- and cheapest -- selection of candidates in years.

"For the first time in years, I felt like I was in the driver's seat," says Ed Brake, manager of Ellin & Tucker, Chartered, a Timonium accounting firm that recently hired three certified public accountants. "Starting salaries are down . . . and I had overqualified people with extremely advanced degrees willing to take pay cuts and work well below the level they were qualified for."

But many managers don't know what to do with such candidates. Some, including Mr. Brake, simply won't hire them. Others have regretted hiring them.

Lin Koppedge, manager of employment and benefits at the Bank of Baltimore, isn't inclined to hire someone who is too high-powered for a position. But sometimes, she says, "you feel sorry for them and get suckered into it."

One laid-off executive Ms. Koppedge hired at another company would "get up at 7 a.m to greet me and the president of the company" at the office entrance, she recalls.

"He never talked to his own boss, or even his boss' boss. He kept on telling us how poorly the place was run. We all spent a lot of time with him, but it got old . . . and he was driving everybody crazy."

Now, Ms. Koppedge hires overqualified workers only if she knows they will fit in and if she can move them along quickly.

A clouded future

For the people struggling to rebound, moving down the financial and career ladder is forcing them to slash their spending and to re-examine their feelings about work. They talk of the loss of self-esteem, the waste of talent and the value of their sacrifices for education and career.

For Elaine Kindler, a 42-year-old former fund-raiser who is now a temporary receptionist making about a third of her old salary, the first things to go when she cut back were clothes and vacations. Smaller treats followed.

"I'm not drinking Diet Coke; I'm drinking water. Those 2-liter bottles add up," she says.

Although she is grateful for the work she has, she is eager to move on. "I'm a wonderful temp, but I'm an even better fund-raiser," she

says.

But the future is clouded for people such as Ms. Kindler.

Full-time jobs with benefits are becoming increasingly scarce. For example, the number of people working part-time out of necessity rather than by choice hit an all-time high of 6.5 million late last year, an increase of 1.3 million since 1990.

As qualified applicants are turned away, they try to balance their desperation with their sense of dignity and professionalism.

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