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Career Advice: Escaping the Overqualified/Underqualified Cycle

In the Discussions section of GovLoop, a member asks this question:

“I am overqualified for the basic entry-level, no experience positions because of education and other skills like languages, programs etc., and underqualified for one step higher positions due to the lack of experience. . . .

My questions is how to escape the never ending cycle of overqualified/underqualified?”

I’d like to answer this question because I think the member points to a problem that everyone has when they apply for a job that is anything other than the next logical level up in their current career ladder. How do we demonstrate to a hiring manager that our education or experiences in other fields are applicable to the position we’re interviewing for?

This is what I recommend: Customize your resume.

Instead of organizing it according to job title and in reverse chronological order, take the job description of the position you’re applying for and use that as the organizing principle. For example, let’s say that you want to apply for a New Media position Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Here are the duties of the job as they see it:

  • Manages the development of the website for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), including the design and creation of online tools and the creation of content to further the mission of CFPB.
  • Works closely with the entire management team of CFPB to coordinate the roll-out and development of all website features – including consumer complaints, registration, and financial education – to further the core mission of CFPB.
  • Manages staff, contracts and vendor relationships concerned with the web site.
  • Overseas the technical development of the website, to include scripts, content management, interactive features, and other key tools and content.
  • Develops processes and procedures related to the operations and management of CFPB’s web site.
  • Performs other duties as assigned.

You should pick out the key words from each of these bullets, and show how you have experience in the area.

Website Development and Maintenance

  • Developed the intranet for a 500-employee company, chose the CMS, worked with vendor to keep project on time and on budget, lead staff training, managed applications and content
  • Led ongoing maintenance and deployment of periodic upgrades in response to user demand and system requirements
  • Responded to changing user needs by gathering requirements, meeting regularly with vendor, and helping develop and deploy new features, including AJAX applications, embedded real-time collaboration tools, and sharable online asset libraries.

Staff Management

  • Managed a team of 4 vendors and 2 internal staff members
  • Led the working group with members from 15 departments that reviewed designs, content, and applications

So what you do is focus more on the skills that you’ve acquired and the experiences that have helped you cultivate those skills than on prior jobs or education milestones.

This exercise has a number of benefits. First, it should help you understand if you are qualified for the position. If you’re looking at the duties and you see that you have no way to demonstrate that you can discharge them, you may in fact be underqualified for the position. However, if you can put into writing how you indeed can discharge them, and you can state it succinctly, you’ve helped the hiring manager justify at least calling you in for an interview.

Second, it helps the hiring manager by allowing her to see at a glance that you belong at the top of the pile. What they are looking for is a reason either to bring people in for an interview or send their application to the circular file. If you think they’re just going to 86 your application, do them a favor and don’t send it in. But if you think they’re going to show an interest in you, make it easy for them to do so.

Of course, you do need to list your jobs and your education, but they are only reference points. They’re the footnotes to the main article that is your skills set. I’ve attached my resume in the format I’m suggesting – I’ve used it to land the last three jobs I’ve had and all my supervisors said it was instrumental in helping them decide to bring me in for an interview.

In a follow-up to this article, I’ll talk about some best practices for an interview. In the meantime, I’d recommend the blog written by a friend of mine, Brian Batchelder. He’s a super-smart super career coach. Worth reading.

My resume (which needs updating!)

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Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Thanks, Stephen and Joe. Joe: are you still at OCTO? Would love to know how things are going there with the migration of agencies to the new site design and CMS.

Shannon Donelson

Great post! Thank you for the advice! As a recent college graduate, I’ve found this to be quite the issue for many of my classmates as well as myself!

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. The question for next week is still open, so if you have one, feel free to email me!

Dawn Boyer

What still totally baffles me is that recruiters and HR reps still label a resume as “overqualified” – when in reality, you are qualified to perform the job tasks and duties – OR you are not.

As a recruiter in the past, I’ve often seen resumes where I know the person will be asking for more salary than the position could afford, and I had a great step-by-step procedure that assisted me in determining if the applicant would ‘split for a better paying job’ too soon after hire (which is what the HR & recruiters are trying to avoid when labeling someone as overqualified.)

First I’d explain to the applicant that the top of the salary range was no more than X% of the posting minimum (advertised) salary range. My ads normally stated, “Salary range starts at $XXXXXX annual salary, plus benefits, and negotiations would be based on background, skills, education, and years of experience.) The implication was that the top of the salary range would/could not be more than 10% more than minimum.

Then if they were out of town or the work site area, I would note in the advertisement that relocation financing would be “unavailable” for this position.

These two factors stated in the advertisement usually dropped 99% of the ‘overqualified’ candidates.

If there were still some ‘overqualified’ candidates, I would call them, relay the type of tasks and responsibilities, and that usually took care of the remaining 1% – because they normally wanted different jobs, tasks, and career track responsibilities.

Now I can concentrate on those that are really interested in the job, as well as being qualified. A recruiter should NEVER assume that an overqualified candidate isn’t looking for a position that will reduce the stress in their last ‘retirement wind-down’ phase of their career, or if they are truly done with the C-Suite level type of job and aren’t looking for something that is more fun, relaxing, or challenging by ‘getting their hands dirty again.’

You’d be surprised how many mature workers have the drive and really are interested in stepping back and getting involved in the ‘trenches’ again and can provide some wonderful experience factors to add value added to a growing organization!

Jay A. Allen

Great insight and a particularly nice response by Dawn.

In my experience (and having been “called out” by by wife, when have I ever been qualified!?

In my continual pursuit to reach higher goals for myself, I am always pushing the envelope in seeking responsibilities which go beyond my current skillset. In clear cases where I am not “in the know” I am hoping my enthusiasm will carry the weight when my experience might wane.

Whichever the case (under or over), I always recommend showing that you understand “business alignment” and keen followership. While innovation and creativity have their rightful place (even within the Public Sector), everyone works for a boss and needs to show that they can carry the load by demonstrating strategic intent which positively affects the bottom-line.