When applying for jobs many older job hunters hear the dreaded words, “I’m sorry, you’re over-qualified.” Sometimes this is a euphemism for too old; sometimes it means hiring managers fear the candidate would cost too much. Sometimes it means that hiring managers fear they cannot keep these job candidates constructively busy and challenged if they hire them. In the present high unemployment rate economy, all these are weak arguments. 

Laboratories that continue to hire talented workers in business slumps are able to hire the cream of the crop. Some of these scientists, engineers and technicians may be their competitors’ best employees. Hiring these over-qualified individuals can result in lab managers achieving long-term advantages over their company’s competitors. 

I saw this occur during the oil industry slump of the 1980s, the chemical industry slump of the mid-1990s and in the recent large-scale staff reductions by some big pharmaceutical companies. Much of this is the “creative destruction” envisioned by economist Joseph Schumpeter. Creative destruction means that newly created jobs and applications for capital have a higher value to society than the jobs lost. This certainly seems to be the case for drug development as some drug companies slash laboratory employment and close entire laboratories even as they increasingly buy promising new drugs and drug development projects from smaller, more innovative biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms. 

The lab manager’s role 

Once the lab managers hire these over-qualified job hunters, they need to find ways to provide a stimulating work environment, challenge them and reward them adequately so they to not leave for other jobs as the economy improves. 

One key is not to hire them for a single job but use them in multiple roles. In addition to their primary work assignment, place over-qualified new employees on teams where theycan serve as internal consultants and other team members can tap their knowledge and experience. Over-qualified individuals can also serve as instructors in corporate training programs and as mentors to younger employees. For example, many younger scientists and engineers have a poor understanding of the U.S. patenting process. If your firm uses outside patent attorneys rather than having their own patent department, having these attorneys coach your lab employees can be expensive. Your younger employees may relate better to senior colleagues coaching them on the patent process than to patent attorneys doing the same thing. This coaching may be either formal or informal. 

Flexible employment practices such as flexible working hours and the option to work from home can make over-qualified recent hires more satisfied with their situations.  

Pay 

Pay can be a major challenge for lab managers who hire top talent at bargain basement salaries. Negotiating with your own managers to pay over-qualified hires more and give them adequate raises can be difficult. One option could be to develop a system of bonuses for accomplishments that will allow employees to receive substantial financial awards for specific accomplishments in addition to their base salary. The alternative is to see your outstanding new hires defect to other laboratories as the economy improves. 

Other pressures on managers 

Over-qualified new hires may be relieved to have a job again but are often embittered over the loss of benefits they enjoyed in their former jobs or lower salaries. Often these individuals are reporting to managers they don’t respect and who lack the experience of the over-qualified individuals. These situations can lead to resentment–particularly after the initial relief at having a job again wears off. Managers need to be sensitive to these situations.