Today’s Chicago Sun-Times features an interesting article by Paul Davidson (USA Today) on the problem of moving back in a career, taking a lower level position, to stay employed. Davidson cites experts who say that a person who tries to take a few steps down on the career ladder is actually less likely to get hired. Applicants who were unemployed but seeking jobs at their current level were more likely to get hired.
That doesn’t surprise me. It’s not a matter of being employed or employed. It’s a matter of being qualified. Candidates who dumb down their resume or take a lower level job often show themselves as overqualified. They are less likely to get hired for lower level jobs because employers are worried that they would be bored or constantly looking for a job at their level. Worse still, as Davidson notes, if job seekers are “lucky” enough to land a lower level job, it’s very hard to climb back up the ladder. The article features the story of a former executive who took a job as a front line employee to keep from having a gap in her resume. Now she is having trouble getting interviews for executive positions.
My advice to clients is to take a lower level job only in two cases. First, if you need immediate income, take whatever job will give you the income you need. Second, if clients are looking to downshift and work at positions with less responsibility, they should pursue those jobs. In both cases, I inform them that moving back up the ladder will be difficult. Don’t move down the career ladder without considering the consequences.
One of my clients has had an interesting career. While he has been very successful in retail sales, he has always filled a role in IT, which is fitting for a person who majored in computer sciences. He recently earned a major certification and now wants to focus his career in IT.
He asked a question many career changers face: “Do I have to start at the bottom?”
Before I could answer, his girlfriend, who accompanied him to our meeting, snapped: “You don’t have to eat dog food.” I smiled hearing her words.
Many career changers assume that going into a new field means starting at the entry level. This assumption is flawed because it ignores the direct experience, transferable skills, education, or certification that makes the career change possible. My client has skills and experience that will let him be a system administrator or IT Manager. If he applied to positions like Help Desk 1 or Technicians, most employers would say he was overqualified.
People change careers all the time. Some transitions are easier than others. However, in many cases, it is not necessary to go to the bottom of the ladder and start climbing all over again. There is always an employer who is looking to higher talent and pay a low wage. They’ll feed you dog food if you’ll eat it. Now your value and respect yourself. Find a job that meets what you have to offer.
Mary (not her real name) is a client who is having a problem with her job search. She has a graduate degree and most recently worked for the federal government. When we met earlier this week, Mary told me she’s having trouble finding work and can’t even get an entry level job. I asked her a few questions about how she’s looking for work. It turns out that she’s only looking for jobs for which she’s overqualified. Mary has put herself in a vicious circle: She thinks she’s only qualified for jobs for which no sane employer will hire her because of her education and achievement.
I asked Mary to work with me and take an inventory of her professional assets. We started with her education and then went over her professional experience and achievements. When we were done, Mary laughed and said that she can see why she wasn’t getting called by employers. We targeted jobs that fit Mary’s background and interests. Now she is refocused in her job search.
Finding a job is never easy. However, if we match what we want and are qualified to do with what employers need, the process gets easier and more likely to lead to a job offer. Success is never guaranteed, but you will never succeed by selling down your skills and ability. Know your worth and how to sell it.
When describing your work history on a resume, be sure that you show how your level of responsibility fits what prospective employers need. Review the samples below and note how it is possible to describe “scope” or “weight” depending on your career level. Demonstrate how your previous experience will let you fill the role you are applying for.
Worked as lead and assistant analyst for several projects. (Marketing, Project Management)
Prepared journal entries and government reporting as well as annual, quarterly, and monthly consolidated financial statements. (Accounting)
Contacted college instructors to promote books and materials from an academic publisher. (Sales)
Researched clients’ businesses and determined what events/awards would raise their profile and brand. (Marketing)
Mid-level and Managerial:
Oversaw facilities and service along with supervising 150 employees.
Supervised a team of 20 in delivering services to seniors, homeless, and victims of child abuse. Oversaw a $1.5 million budget for department operations and program costs.
Oversee radiology and MRI operations at an orthopedic practice that has had as many as 14 physicians.
Quickly took on increased leadership roles over 15+ years at 3 large corporations, moving from a positions as Process Engineer to Brand Manager to COO and President.
Directed operations at three casual dining American restaurants located in Wheeling, Illinois (Chicago), San Diego, California, and Naples, Florida. Managed annual revenue of $10 million and a staff of 100-120, including three Executive Chefs.
Direct finance and operations for a $500 million portfolio of student housing that generates $50 million in annual revenue. Collaborated with the CEO in establishing policies for acquisition, pricing, and sales.
Hired to turn around regional accounting operations in Russia and former territories of the U.S.S.R. ($175 million annual revenue) for a global leader that provides technical support to the energy industry. Reported to the European CFO headquartered in Zurich and a Regional Sales VP in Russia.
I recently met a prospective client who had significant managerial experience. He was frustrated because he had applied to several jobs and never received a call back. I asked to see a sample of the type of jobs he was applying to. In almost every case, they were entry level or had nothing to do with the managerial experience that was presented on his resume.
This client’s experience is typical of one of the biggest mistakes a job seeker can make. If you aim low in the kind of job you apply to, but keep your resume focused on higher level experience or skill, don’t expect a call back. Most employers will consider you to be overqualified and will expect you to jump to a new job at the higher level as soon as one becomes available. Applying in this way will become frustrating, and soon you will think no one will want to hire you.
What’s the answer? Apply at the level that fits your skills. Show employers why you can fill the role that is open. If you decide to “down shift” and attempt to get a lower position, write your resume so the employer can see how you can fill the role that is open. I would still expect most employers to see you as overqualified, but at least you will be showing them your qualifications to fill the open role. My advice in most cases is to play to your strengths. Don’t look down.
A client called me about a job interview that didn’t go well. The employer asked my client to explain how he would support one of the company’s programs. My client answered in general terms that he knew sounded terrible. What was the problem? He didn’t know what the program was. It’s a new program, and there is no information posted about it online.
What should he have done? Ask a clarifying question. If an employer asks a question that is not clear, it is perfectly acceptable for a job candidate to ask for clarification. My client should have asked, “Can you tell me more about the program?”
In other interviews, clients have been asked questions that involve being overqualified or underqualified. On the surface, these questions make no sense, since such an applicant would not get an interview. In this situation, an applicant should ask, “Why do you say I am overqualified (or underqualified)?” Once that question is clarified, it will be easier to give a good answer and speak to the interviewer’s real concern.
Some clients are afraid to ask such questions. They think it is rude to question the person who is supposed to ask the question. That’s a bad way to think about interviews. A good interview is a conversation and dialogue, not a test with right and wrong answers. In any normal conversation, you would ask for clarification. Do the same thing during a job interview. You can’t answer a question unless you know what it means.