In late 1985, Michael Alper, now 46, lost his job as head of human resources for a $200-million California computer firm. With 20 years of experience, his search for another job might have seemed easy work. But too much experience is often the problem, not the solution.
Last year, for instance, he applied for the senior personnel position with a smaller, family-owned company.
"I interviewed with the daughter of the owner of the company. She was in her mid-20s and had been a graduate of USC's master's program two years before. Now she was the so-called head of administration. She looked at my resume and the gray in my hair and said, 'Boy, your career must be really on the downside if you'd really consider working for someone my age.' I did not say anything and walked out," Alper said.
Being overqualified is a nasty obstacle to overcome these days in the job market. The 8,900 corporate mergers and acquisitions in the United States over the past three years have meant the chopping of many white-collar jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics figures that 500,000 executive, administrative and managerial jobs were eliminated between 1981 and 1986.
For many job hunters who were pushed out of that sort of work, "Sorry, you're overqualified" is a haunting refrain.
"It's a cliche that hides a lot of things," said William Mangum, a headhunter who is president of Thomas Mangum Co. in Los Angeles.
In Alper's case, according to Mangum, he probably fit the most common category for exclusion: He was too old. But "overqualified" can also mean "you're too expensive," "we don't like you" or "we worry that you have been with another company too long and won't adapt well to our culture."
Most damning of all is when someone is genuinely overqualified and willing to do a lesser job but can't get hired.
"It's the single most frustrating thing for me in the executive search business," said Marshal Mahl, president of Mahl & Associates in Los Angeles.
"If employers are willing, they can buy a Cadillac for Oldsmobile prices," Alper said. But employers, headhunters said, are usually daunted by the prospect of hiring someone who is overqualified.
"Most supervisors are not secure enough and will not hire someone who is overqualified. Hiring an overqualified person is very scary," Mahl says.
"For the company, it always raises the question, is the executive going to be happy in a smaller role? And to the guy hiring him, is he going after my scalp?" said Carl Jacobs, manager of the Los Angeles office for Sibson & Co., a management consulting firm.
Consider a recent meeting in Los Angeles of PIRA, the Personnel and Industrial Relations Assn. On that day, Alper was among the two dozen out-of-work human resources professionals who met to swap job leads and to try to keep each other's spirits up.
Although PIRA placed 138 people into new jobs last year, many of them had to overcome the overqualified syndrome. This meeting might as well be called O. Q. Anonymous. Present were ex-employees of a cross section of American industry, including such firms as Honeywell, Rockwell, USX, Wickes and Bell & Howell.
Bruce Chamberlin, 58, was there. He said he put in nearly 30 years at CBS, most recently as assistant director of personnel for the Broadcast Group in Los Angeles, earning $59,000. He left in December, with a year's pay and indefinite medical benefits.
Chamberlin's been willing to take a job "a notch below. I've been prepared to accept the financial realities of that." Fortunately, his house is almost paid for, and his two kids are grown and on their own.
But he's discovered that being willing to accept a job with lower pay is also a Catch-22. On a recent job interview for a personnel director post that paid in the mid-40s, Chamberlin didn't make it past the pre-screening interview, conducted by a man about 35. "He essentially said, 'I think you're overqualified.' "
Complained Chamberlin, "If you're willing to accept less, it may be evidence that you're really not on the push anymore."
Being overqualified is tough in the airline business, too. Consider the former Continental Airlines pilot who in just over three years went from making $110,000 a year to doing temporary office work .
The pilot, now 50, asked that his name not be used. After 18 years with Continental, he lost his job in September, 1983, during a labor dispute.
"It cost me the job I loved and the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Basically, she wanted to be married to an airline pilot," the pilot said.
For a veteran pilot, it's a perilous time to be looking for work. For one thing, switching from the pilot's seat at one airline to that at another airline just isn't done. A path has to be followed at each company: flight engineer, then co-pilot, then captain.