The Perfect Hand: Can You Be Too Qualified?

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Anthony Cometti is a technologist at heart. He first began tooling around with computers in the late 1980s, while he was still working in the food service industry. He felt there had to be a more efficient way to do his paperwork, so, taking cues from contemporary spreadsheet applications, he automated the company’s pen-and-paper process. His accomplishment not only gained him a little notoriety among his peers, it also whet his development appetite. A short time later, Cometti embarked on a new career path in the IT field.

During the next decade, Cometti worked his way up the management ranks, earning certifications along the way. It wasn’t until he’d reached the vice president level that he realized he’d effectively lost touch with the technical aspect of the field — the part he originally had enjoyed so much. So he put himself back on the job market to search for a more hands-on role — a position he finds himself in today. The only hitch?

“I’m being beat up a little by employers who see that management and consulting experience on my resume and [think], ‘This guy is a senior manager in an IT organization. Why does he want to do development work?’” Cometti said. “They get a little squirrely.”

There are many reasons an IT professional may want to take a career step backward: A project manager may want to get back into the technical side, a senior leader may want a new job with no direct reports or a high-powered executive may want a job with less organizational stress or better work-life balance. But with the struggling economy and rising unemployment rates, more and more experienced professionals are on the market for any and all open positions, leading to a growing number of IT job seekers finding themselves overqualified.

“Certainly, we are seeing a trend of IT professionals being overqualified right now,” said Susan Cheedle, central U.S. district president for Robert Half Technology. “With personnel cutbacks by many companies, there are just more individuals in the market who may be considered overqualified [because] they may be looking at jobs they might not have looked at a couple years ago. It’s not uncommon during these times.”

Defining ‘Overqualified’

In this competitive market, it can be hard to pinpoint just what makes an IT professional too qualified for a position. Is it education, certifications, experience or a combination of all three that contribute to the perception?

“There’s really no hard-and-fast rule that determines the perfect level of qualification,” Cheedle said. “As we’re talking to employers, and I’ve been meeting with a lot of them recently, they look at years of experience to get a sense of what level the candidate’s at, but they also look at the certifications and the education to get the total snapshot.”

It really comes down to whether the employer is willing to take a hiring risk. For example, Cheedle said she overheard an IT hiring manager on a recent flight talk about how his company was looking at the current situation as an opportunity to snap up some highly qualified individuals.

“I think that is becoming more prevalent, where companies are saying they want to get more access to skills that maybe [were] harder to find prior,” she said.

On the other hand, you have employers that are reluctant to hire seemingly overqualified professionals “because they’re worried that they’re only just taking the job right now [for financial reasons] and they’re going to get bored, and that when the economy gets better, they’re going to jump ship,” she said. “[Employers] don’t want to spend their time and money training a person who would be more suited for a different position. There are a lot of employers that are willing to take that risk, and some that aren’t.”

In fact, Cometti said he recently received an e-mail from his contact at a tech staffing firm confirming this very suspicion: Clients may be getting more bang for their buck by hiring potentially overqualified people, she said. But they’re concerned that the same people will leave to pursue higher-level positions once the market improves, thereby negating the investments made in their training, business knowledge and experience.

“It’s painful on both sides of the fence: trying to find a qualified candidate and trying to find a qualified job,” Cometti said. “I think [employers are] thinking about, ‘What are my pain points? If this guy comes in the door and six months later I’m back here again, it’s a lose situation for [us], too.’”

Additionally, some employers may be concerned that an IT professional who has worked his way up through the ranks may be too out of touch with current technology trends to get back into the hands-on arena. After all, in this digital age, technology develops and changes quickly.

“The technology moves so fast that if you’re not engaged in it on almost a daily basis, it’s very difficult,” said Fran Landolf, an independent business and IT consultant. “If people successfully make the transition from the technical realm to the leadership and management realm, then that means that they’re acquiring the skills they need to be an effective leader, which means that they’re probably not applying the skills that made them the effective technician. It’s hard to maintain your technical edge if you’re in a leadership position.”

Other experts suggest the concept of being overqualified refers only to one thing: money.

“‘You’re overqualified’ is often code for, ‘You’re too expensive,’” said John McCreight, chairman of McCreight & Co. Inc., a strategy implementation consulting firm. “[The recruiter] can’t come up with any sense of a way to justify to their boss or to themselves to even talk with you, given you’re that expensive.

“A companion point to that is people have a tendency, just because they’re selling, to make their current job or the one they most recently had bigger than it really is,” he added. “They hype the job, and that scares folks. This isn’t the time to do that; this is a time to be very, very careful.

“I think a lot of people — with what they say in their resume and how they behave early in the interview — destroy themselves on the issue of ‘you’re overqualified.’”

Overcoming the Overqualification Obstacle

While being too qualified can’t exactly be undone — nor should it be — there are ways IT professionals can work around it. First on the agenda? You should tailor your resume to the jobs you’re applying to.

“You definitely don’t want to have just one resume,” Cheedle said. “Do your homework before you apply for the position: Read the job description. Tailor your resume and cover letter to show you have the value or the qualifications and certifications the client’s looking for. You should focus in on your skills and accomplishments more than just the job titles.”

You may want to play up some experiences and play down others, or highlight only certain skills. For example, it doesn’t hurt to showcase experience in particularly in-demand areas, such as help-desk and desktop support, networking, virtualization and Voice over IP (VoIP). Certification in any of these topics, as well as in .Net, SharePoint and PHP, also will prove very valuable, Cheedle said.

“Also, I think [candidates] should highlight their soft skills: written and verbal communications skills, leadership, customer-service mindset,” she said. “Every company out there is trying to retain their customers, so if [candidates] have any interaction with outside customers, then that’s a big thing to highlight.”

Just don’t go overboard when finessing your resume, Cometti said.

“On the hiring manager’s side, when they start the process up, they may not have a clear idea of what they’re looking for,” he explained. “So if you tailor [your resume] too closely to what their description is, you may end up cutting your own throat.”

Once you do make it into the interview process, you should work on positioning yourself in the best possible light: You want to sell smart, not up.

“Don’t overstate what you do,” McCreight said. “Don’t make your past job sound as if it’s so much bigger than the one that you’re interviewing for. What the candidate is needing to do is to package themselves from the perspective of the person interviewing them. In other words, make it clear that you can do this job [that you’re interviewing for, and that you would] be very proud to be doing it.”

As to whether the interviewee should address the issue of being overqualified up-front, the answer is a resounding “no,” according to experts. Interviewees should wait for the interviewer to bring it up and deal with it then.

“Don’t rush to judgments here, and don’t let the person interviewing you rush to judgment,” McCreight said. “We would encourage people: Don’t be defensive. Make sure you get the job you came in for, but then help them have an open mind and help them think about you in a broader context.”

In fact, convincing the employer of your own flexibility is key, Cometti said.

“I try to tell people I’m open as far as what the role really looks like,” he said. “That strategy helps them in other areas as well.”

In fact, in today’s economy, IT professionals are increasingly expected to wear many hats, so you could use your vast experience to your advantage.

“A lot of companies are trying to go with leaner staff, and they want someone with a more diverse skill set,” Cheedle said. “Even if they don’t need those skills today, they never know what they’re going to need down the road. From a return on investment [standpoint], you should be able to show that you’ll be able to increase productivity on the job, be able to get it done faster, take on additional projects [and] wear multiple hats.”

You also should try to keep salary off the table for as long as you possibly can, McCreight added, “even in terms of what you currently make, until, as the candidate, you’re ready to deal with [it].”

The final thing to keep in mind is the human element of a job — otherwise known as fit. Landolf offered a personal anecdote to prove just how important the right match is.

“My son works for a dot-com in Manhattan,” he said. “He recently took the job. [The company] had the team of young guys — young, sharp guys — interview all the candidates for the job. My son told me they had interviewed about 15 people before they interviewed him for this position. [So] the team has a big role in making the hire. They don’t have the last say, but if they don’t approve, then the person
doesn’t go through the first gate.”

- Agatha Gilmore,

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