Overqualified Workers and the Difficulty of Finding a Job

Do you feel like a big fish in a small pond? Overqualified people who work well below their capacities exhibit greater dissatisfaction and psychological discomfort. What can be done about this situation?
Overqualified Workers and the Difficulty of Finding a Job

Last update: 17 August, 2022

The term ‘overqualified workers’ defines an increasingly evident problem in society today. They’re individuals with higher education who can’t find a job commensurate with their knowledge and skills. This demonstrates the fact that the inability to develop in a particular profession isn’t always due to a lack of initiative, commitment, or persistence.

As a matter of fact, the fault may well lie in a world increasingly dominated by inconsistencies. There are so few job openings for highly educated employees that there’s often no other option for them than to lower their sights. Indeed, the only way out is to apply for jobs in a lower category and reduce their hopes and expectations of significantly contributing to progress in the field in which they’re qualified.

This explains, for example, why, when a technician position is offered in a company, 100 engineers appear. Also, when an admin position is advertised, 100 graduates with one, two, or even five master’s degrees apply. They simply want to work, have a salary, be in the labor market, and feel that they’re worth something.

However, the latter isn’t always easy to achieve. The highly qualified person also has serious difficulties in getting a job, even if it’s well below their capacity. All of this translates into great psychological anguish.

We live in a society in which a university education doesn’t correspond to the needs of the productive system.

Stressed woman symbolizing overqualified workers
An employer won’t always prefer an applicant with a higher academic qualification.

Overqualified workers, a silenced suffering

There are many people who’ve found themselves in this situation. They review the job offers daily and, on seeing one that may be suitable, they apply for it. There’s a call, an interview, and a selection process. Finally, they’re told that their resume is outstanding but, due to them being overqualified, they’re discarded.

“You’d get bored here” they’re told. “Your skills are way above this job, you deserve better,” employers insist. However, when the job offers for skilled jobs are minimal, the person is forced to opt for lower-grade jobs. That’s where the problem arises: discovering that many employers don’t want overqualified workers.

Clearly, there’s a latent paradox here. The productive system of many countries doesn’t fit with the qualifications offered to young people. The actual job offers are well below the number of college graduates that come onto the market each year.

Nevertheless, there are always exceptions, and overqualification doesn’t affect all graduates equally although most do find themselves at this personal, work, and existential crossroads. The consequences derived from these kinds of situations are multiple.

The problem of overqualification isn’t exclusive to the younger population and recent graduates. There are many people with a great deal of experience and high qualifications who find themselves without work and have real difficulty in finding a job.

Frustration, demotivation, and unhappiness

Overqualification can be understood as the perception that we have skills that are far superior to the requirements of a specific job. This is a reality experienced by a significant number of workers in the current labor market. Furthermore, when they finally manage to access a job, they often end up feeling frustrated. 

Florida International University (USA) conducted a meta-analysis of perceived overqualification. They analyzed 25 years of research.

The researchers found that overqualified workers feel like big fish in small ponds. They’re not satisfied with the work they do, they don’t feel committed to the organization, and they also experience stress, psychological tension, and unhappiness.

This is something of which managers and employers are fully aware. They know that when a person has a job for which they’re overqualified, they’re likely to start arriving late for work and take more sick leave due to their discomfort.

Overqualified workers: an increasingly common phenomenon

The authors of the aforementioned study claim that almost half of all college graduates in the United States work in jobs that don’t require a degree. The same thing happens in other countries. For example, in Spain, there are ten million university graduates, but only six million relevant positions available.

This means that a large part of those people will be overqualified workers. In other words, they’ll be forced to apply for positions well below their capabilities. As an added problem, not all employers want this type of worker. So where does this leave them?

They lead truncated lives and are frustrated victims of an education model that doesn’t fit the production models. We live in a society that isn’t modernizing. In fact, although it speaks of advances, it doesn’t offer positions for research. It’s a world that claims to be increasingly sensitive to human needs, but one that doesn’t respond in a practical and real way to these realities.

Woman thinking about overqualified workers
Many people choose to remove titles or training from their resumes in order to get a better job.

What’s the solution?

There are many people who, when they’re in need of a job, eliminate their studies and experiences from their resumes. However, this strategy isn’t always a good option. It means being dishonest and, sooner or later, it’ll go against them. The best strategy, whenever possible, is to continue choosing jobs according to the training they have.

They have to be patient, strategic, and innovative. Some might take risks and spread their wings and try their luck in other cities or even countries. However, the biggest challenge is for senior skilled workers who lose their jobs. In these cases, it’s always difficult to return to a job market that’s so lacking in opportunities, particularly for those of a certain age.

That said, it’s important not to get discouraged. They should seek support from friends, family, and other professional colleagues. They need to recognize that the problem doesn’t lie with them, as they’re combining their efforts to acquire the best possible training. The problem lies in a production system that doesn’t appreciate talent and doesn’t respond to the needs of society.

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  • Harari, Michael & Tedone, Archana & Viswesvaran, Chockalingam (Vish). (2017). Who Thinks They’re a Big Fish in a Small Pond and Why Does it Matter? A Meta-Analysis of Perceived Overqualification. Journal of Vocational Behavior. 102. 28. 10.1016/j.jvb.2017.06.002.
  • Kulkarni, Mukta & Lengnick-Hall, Mark & Martinez, Patricia. (2015). Overqualification, mismatched qualification, and hiring decisions: Perceptions of employers. Personnel Review. 44. 529-549. 10.1108/PR-11-2013-0204.