Overqualified and Unemployable

The irony of today’s job market.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a friend of mine. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Sally.

Like me, Sally spent years writing computer how-to books, turning her expertise into easy-to-understand instructions readers could learn from. Like me, she had strong selling titles that earned her a good income. She writes about more technical topics than I wrote about: mostly web-related programming. And unlike me, she stuck to freelance work as her main source of income where I grew and then slid into a career as a helicopter pilot.

A few months ago, Sally mentioned on Twitter or Facebook that she was looking for a full-time job.

A full-time job.

I thought at the time about how I’d feel if I had to get a full-time job after more than 20 years as a freelancer and business owner. A job where I had to dress a certain way every day, work regular hours, attend pointless staff meetings, and answer to a boss with his/her own personal agenda or baggage. A job where my daily tasks would be determined by someone else, without giving me any choice in the matter. A job where the term “weekend” actually meant something.

I shudder at the thought.

Don’t get the idea that I don’t work. Or that Sally doesn’t work. Freelancers work when there’s work to do. When there isn’t, we’re usually looking for work.

But these days, the kind of work Sally and I did as freelancers is getting harder and harder to find. People don’t buy computer how-to books when they can Google the answers they seek. People don’t spend money on the educational content we produce when they can get it for free online. So publishers are letting books die without revision and, one-by-one, freelance writers like us are losing our livelihood.

The reason I’m thinking about Sally lately is because this week she posted another Twitter update to say that she was looking for a full-time job. She was using Twitter to network, to put out feelers, to help her connect to someone who might be hiring. I’m sure she’s following other avenues as well.

What resulted was a brief conversation on Twitter between me, Sally, and another freelancer our age. And that’s when I learned a tragic fact:

Sally had applied for a job at a college teaching the computer language she’d been writing about for years. In fact, the college was using her book as the textbook for the course. But they wouldn’t hire her. Why? She didn’t have a Master’s degree.

Now those folks who are working to get a Masters or already have one probably think that’s a good thing. Makes that extra two years in college really worthwhile, huh? Gives you job security, right?

But does anyone honestly think they can teach the course better than the person who wrote the textbook?

It gets worse. Sally wanted to work for a local organization that has a tendency to hire young people at low starting salaries. When she applied, she even offered to work at that low salary. And she was turned down.

I know why. Young people are inexperienced and far more likely to do what they’re told instead of tapping into experience to suggest improvements as they work. Employers don’t want smart, helpful people. They want drones — bodies to fill seats, push pencils, and get a job done without questioning what they’re told to do.

I saw if myself firsthand when I flew at the Grand Canyon in 2004; the young pilots just did what they were told while older folks like me saw places where the operation could be improved and tried to suggest them. Or, worse yet, used their experience to to make a no-fly decision when weather was an issue. Can’t have that.

So employers are turning away older, more knowledgeable, more experienced workers in favor of young, inexperienced people who might have college degrees to meet arbitrarily established requirements — even when the more experienced workers can be hired at the same cost.

What does that say about our society and values?

9 thoughts on “Overqualified and Unemployable

  1. I’m just sitting here shaking my head through this whole thing. I’ve seen the posts from ‘Sally’ as well and it’s mind-boggling that someone of her caliber, expertise, and experience is having one second of trouble getting whatever job she has in mind. That’s been going on for awhile now, too. Unbelievable.

    What you’ve also written here is showing the ridiculousness of the situation… not hiring her to teach when they’re using HER book for the class (not to mention all her expertise and YEARS of experience and knowledge) … beyond absurd. And I say that as someone WITH a master’s degree. Yes, I’m proud of that degree and the effort, but knowledge comes in MANY forms… a university degree is only ONE way… geesh.

    Whoever doesn’t snatch her up and hire her in a blink is a crazy fool. Truly. Same goes for anyone else faced with a similar situation.

  2. As one who will soon be transitioning out of my current career, I worry about this issue. As I was finishing my MA, I asked the private university if I could be hired as an adjuct prof; the answer, “no we only hire PhD.” Their own MA in education wasn’t good enough…

    • I could tell you PhD stories….

      I attended Hofstra University in Long Island which was an “accredited business school.” That meant that a certain percentage of the professors had to be PhDs. My major was Accounting. They axed a truly excellent accounting professor — someone who knew his stuff and was a great lecturer — because he had only an MBA and hired a dimwitted PhD who lacked personality and lecturing skills. She was so bad and so many students complained that they allowed us to drop her course mid-term and take the course for free with another professor. Her contract ran a full year but I don’t think she taught for her second term.

      If you’re over 50, be worried. It’s hard to start at the bottom of a new career at our age.

      Good luck to you!

    • I’ve been half-heartedly trying to get occasional work in a wine tasting room for about a year now. Can’t commit to real full time or part time work, mostly because I don’t want to and partly because I can’t let other work interfere with my flight. Needless to say, I’m sticking to the patron side of the counter.

      I think at our age getting any sort of job that’s not exactly what we’ve been doing all along is difficult. Glad I don’t NEED that job.

  3. Consider for a moment if this job application was for a sport such as football (soccer for my American friends). Do you think they would employ based on qualifications or skill? It would obviously be based on skill.

    So what is different in the non-sport workplace? The answer should be “there is no difference”. If the person has the skill, then they should be given a chance to demonstrate that skill and an assessment made if the lack of a qualification will restrict their ability to deliver the job.

  4. A couple other factors to consider. One is the employers health care costs, which can be cheaper for businesses with mostly younger employees. Another is the fact that older, more experience employees can constitute a threat to the career advancement of younger, relatively inexperienced managers. Not only is their “BS tolerance” generally lower, but it can make them look bad when their new hires know more than their bosses do. Looking out for “number one” is ALWAYS job number one for any middle manager, after all. In some cases it’s probably due to the generational gap, since the priorities and viewpoints of old vs. new can be irreconcilably different.

    And I know what you mean about the “old guys” at Papillion GCH, I was one of those too, back when, even when I wasn’t technically an “old” guy. ;)

What do you think?