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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


Overcoming the overqualified conundrum

By David Chilton
Special to The Toronto Sun

Penny Karanis has a master's degree in sociology from York University and enjoyed a successful career in the telecommunications industry. Gail Trotman has a bachelor of education degree and diplomas in social work, business and paralegal studies. Fess Ghebremedhin studied biology and chemistry in Eritrea, then spent five years at Jose Antonio Echverria University of Technology in Havana, Cuba learning to be an industrial engineer -- something he was so good at, Fidel Castro himself gave him an award.
Gail Trotman has experienced the frustrations of being overqualified. "Examine yourself and where you want to go," Trotman says.

All three are bright, energetic and personable, and would be an asset to any company. But they've been told again and again in interviews and over the phone that they're "overqualified" for the jobs for which they've applied. They aren't alone, but part of a sizeable group of job seekers whose qualifications put them at a considerable disadvantage in the labour market.

One reason employers won't hire someone whose qualifications appear to be more than they're asking for is cost.

"A common fear from a company standpoint might be that if you have been more senior in the past you might not stay too long in the role they want to fill," says Marina Heidman, a career consultant at GSW Consultants in Toronto. "And it costs money to find and bring people into an organization. Companies are trying to fill a gap, not create a temporary situation."

Sue Sandler, manager of program development at the Career Foundation in Toronto, a federally funded organization that works with the unemployed and foreign trained professionals, agrees. She says employers aren't interested in someone who appears to be passing through, and worry that when the novelty of a new job has worn off, the so-called overqualified employee will get bored.

Still, "Overqualified is often a cop out," says Sandler, since it may be code for age or other biases.

Disheartening though the overqualified tag may be, it need not be a ticket to despair.

Ghebremedhin faced the distinct possibility he would never work as an industrial engineer in Canada, so he studied English and began to volunteer at Neighbourhood Link Resource Centre in the East End. He's now a full-time employee at the centre, where he provides computer instruction and teaches job search techniques, resume writing and electronic resume creation.
Penny Karanis

"In engineering you learn to be flexible and to find other solutions," Ghebremedhin says.

Finding another solution is something Karanis has done. She's using her English as a second language certificate from the University of Toronto and her graduate degree to build a new career in teaching, a profession where, she acknowledges wryly, it's hard to imagine being overqualified.

Trotman advises those who've been told they're overqualified to take a step back and gain some perspective on their situation.

"I think it's important to take stock. Examine yourself and where you want to go."

In her case it's the paralegal field, but after six months of applying for entry level positions she'd had enough of being badgered about why, with her qualifications, she wanted a junior job. She has since struck out on her own and is now managing partner in Suite Justice, handling uncontested divorces, immigration matters, small claims and so on.

Heidman, who has a doctorate in adult education, advises those deemed overqualified not to worry about the tag, but to learn how to better position themselves.

"Understand the industry that company is in and the nature of the business that they're in, and then demonstrate the added value that you would bring because of the experience that you have."

(Reach freelancer David Chilton at

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