“Overqualified” Code for “Too Old”

by / Newsroom Ink on 09/30/2011

Professional Organizations Such as IABC and PRSA Should Step Up to Help Communicators. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

By Springfield Lewis, Newsroom Ink

For communication jobseekers, the term “overqualified” is often nothing more than corporate code for “too old.” No secrets or surprises here for the 50+ – and for even those younger.

Age discrimination is as real and a growing problem in the workplace. If anything, it’s more insidious than all the other discriminations combined, cutting across race and gender.

Because it’s so widespread, it needs to be addressed head-on now by professional organizations to help generations of communicators – young and old alike. Injustices tolerated today surely will be passed on to the next.

As companies downsized communications staffs, older professionals got – and continue to get – pink slips, including many who are over the age of 55.

Research from studies conducted by RetirementJobs.com and AARP confirm that between 80 and 95 percent of people over age 50 believe that “age bias is a fact of life.”

Highly educated professionals, many holding master degrees, are forced to become “underemployed,” working in jobs that do not require a college degree. Job seekers, young and old in all fields, now compete for positions – hourly and not salaried – for which they’re technically overqualified.

Senior candidates, with 15 to 20 years of experience, are hard-pressed to get rehired because:

  • Their former salaries, often six figures, exclude them from “lesser” jobs.
  • The perception, or perhaps misconception, they’re less tech-savvy.
  • Belief they lack the drive of “up and comers” eager to work long hours.

What’s more, the difference between today’s downturn and the “dot-com” bust of 2000-2001 is even “survivor jobs” are tough to find or non-existent.

Hard times require a mindset that’s adaptable to change and willing to learn – from all kinds of work.

“The best way to approach a survivor job is to wear your anthropologist hat,” said Adrienne Lallo, APR, director of communications for Seton Healthcare Family, who briefly worked as a Starbuck’s barista immediately after the 9/11 economic downturn.

“I wanted to learn how to use the espresso machine, get some tips on how a highly successful retailer operates. The pace and memorization required were daunting at first, but you find ways to adapt.

“What I learned is that it’s important to suppress your impulse to show everyone how smart you are and spend your time watching and listening. My experience on the front line as a Starbuck’s barista has influenced my approach to communications today.”

Corporate jobs advertised on the Internet often receive hundreds of resumes from candidates, with more than 15 years of experience, when a company might only be looking for five to seven years.

A majority of the hiring experts and recruiters are in agreement that employers are concerned about overqualified candidates filling lower-level positions or “survivor jobs.” And why? They’ll be bored. They’ll be too expensive. They’ll move on as soon as a better opportunity arises.

According to the Department of Labor, the average tenure in a job is 4.1-years. Today’s college graduates will work for between four and seven employers in their lifetimes. You don’t think employers know that?

When it comes to money and perceived costs, arguably older workers have the potential to stay longer in a job than younger workers because they don’t want to move around as much.

This is not the time to send a generation of experience packing. Now is the time to stop the clock on age discrimination – before experience and talent are lost forever.

There is a definite “re-engineering” taking place in employment, both opportunities and risks for each side. Employers have a great opportunity to hire experienced staff, but must acknowledge it will be for a shorter amount of time. That said, a company still benefits by leveraging the skills, knowledge and experience of a seasoned new hire while they are with them.

Working on the front line with customers – like at Starbucks – can benefit a communicator when the economy turns. Having gained experienced as an employee, who is the “target audience” of communications, can help him or her know firsthand which employee campaigns work and which ones don’t.

All of which brings us back to the role of professional communications organizations such as PRSA and IABC. These groups need to show more leadership to help seasoned communicators find meaningful work now and later on.

Effective resume-writing seminars, for instance, really don’t deal with the harsh reality of age discrimination. Arrange the words however you want on the page. Eventually, the applicant has to show his or her face – and age.

A “30 or 40 something” resume unravels fast when at 50+ applicant walks through the door. Don’t expect to “Botox” your way through an interview.

“I think it is right to call on the professional associations to help at both ends of the spectrum,” IABC Chair.Adrian Cropley, ABC, told Newsoom Ink. Photo: IABC

Both PRSA, IABC as well as a host of other professional organizations need to become more involved – right on the front line – to show companies and agencies there is a place, and in fact, many places, where older communicators can perform well given the chance.

By leveraging the experience of seasoned new hires, companies will benefit, especially from using them as mentors to other employees. The downside is the anticipated expense of refilling positions when the economy recovers and the more experienced leave for other jobs.

IABC chair, Adrian Cropley, ABC, agrees that in a down market  a wider acceptance of shorter tenures does drive this ‘underemployment’ issue. It also is an issue for new starters in demonstrating competence to secure that first job in the profession. This is not the time to send a generation of experienced communicators packing. Now is the time to stop the clock on age discrimination – before experience and talent are lost forever.

“I think it is right to call on the professional associations to help at both ends of the spectrum,” Cropley told Newsroom Ink. “IABC as part of our strategy development this year is starting to look at ‘whole of Career’ development. We must ensure that we meet the needs of our members and profession for career development, up-skilling, re-skilling and continuous education.”

Age discrimination is not new it’s just amplified in an economic environment where everyone expects to pay less because there are so many people looking for work. The bigger issue why companies are willing to hire communicators with little experience in senior positions. Title inflation in our business remains rampant – when you’re making people in their 20s vice presidents how can someone in their late forties or fifties expect to compete?

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  1. Pierre says:

    I found the article and these comments extremely interesting, and yet there is a group that no one is addressing here that I belong to that is even more marginalized.

    I returned to school when I was 40 as I really wanted to get out of the IT industry for many reasons. I earned a journalism diploma, a communications degree, and a certificate in technical writing. Now, at 50, I am not a “seasoned professional” having only about 6 or 7 years experience in the field, but rather, and intermediate communicator.

    Was it folly to retool at my age? Maybe. Could I have seen the economic downturn that would have pulled the rug out from a lot of us? No?

    Still, what’s an intermediate communicator in his 50s going to use as leverage besides excellent skills and a really good life experience? It’s a slog out there, and I am now looking at Starbucks as a real option – and how sad is that?

    Take care,

    • Springfield Lewis says:


      First … this economy is the monster stalking the countryside. So-called best minds first failed to grasp its depth or voracity. Now, they flail in attempts to contain the beast – much less bring it under control. So, don’t question yourself here.

      Second … any investment made to improve yourself is well-spent money – if not immediately, then later at a more appropriate time. Simply watch for when. Opportunities will present themselves – provided you’re looking at all the possibilities, places and people with fresh eyes. To get a different vantage point, try this simple exercise next time you lose your keys. Stand on a chair in the room where they disappeared. Higher elevation gives you a different view, an advantage point – and often, your found keys. Point is: Elevate yourself, in simple ways, to see more and be seen more. It does work.

      Third … your age and experience actually can be to your advantage in today’s workplace. You don’t have to explain why you’re applying for a mid-level job because your years in communications match up with the position. Now, some recruiters and hiring managers might miss that logic. They can’t see past the grey or wrinkles. So, be direct with them. Say they get business perspective combined with sharp, new tools. Then, make a direct connection with a relevant example. Remember, the obvious isn’t always so obvious to everyone – especially when those doing the hiring are overrun with applicants.

      Finally, never sell yourself short. It’s okay to take in-between jobs at Starbucks and other good companies. Welcome them when they welcome you. They see something good in you. There’s much to learn – everywhere. And when you take off your apron, reflect on how your last shift serving customers made you that much smarter, better at the communications work you still plan to do.


  2. Linda says:

    At 58 and unemployed, I am seriously beginning to think what I really need is a facelift, not another workshop on social media. After all, is social media really that different from what we’ve been doing all our lives? Good writing, consistent messaging disseminated via the various channels–we just have more channels now. I went from print to the Intranet but now I am viewed as a dinosaur. Good grief. If I don’t have the basic skills to write a blog, I don’t know who does. Somebody, please explain to me why social media is so different. Meantime, I’ll have my face lasered.

  3. Renata says:

    Was there any response to the suggestion made to PRSA and IABC to establish dynamic newsrooms – staffed by unemployed or underemployed communications veterans worldwide? I was wondering if I missed it. The discussion is a starting point to acknowledge the problem, create the awareness and develop alternatives, but practical solutions should be implemented by the leading organizations and its members, us, to hopefully help reshape the market and ourselves. Who is up for the challenge?

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