Are Overqualified Workers Unhappy?

A new study by Maryana Arvan, Shani Pindek, Stephanie Andel and Paul Spector explores the relationship between overqualification and job satisfaction. [Free download until August 17.] Research studies tell us that people who say they are overqualified are likely to be dissatisfied. But are overqualified workers unhappy? Not according to this new study.

What Is Overqualification?

Overqualification means that a person’s skills and experiences exceed what is actually needed for a particular job. There are a number of ways in which a person could be overqualified

  1. Having more education than necessary, for example, a secretary with a PhD.
  2. Having skills that exceed what is needed, for example, an engineer who takes a job as a technician.
  3. Having more ability than is necessary, for example, hiring a person who is high on cognitive ability (intelligence) for a job that doesn’t require it, for example, a job as a custodian.

What Do Prior Studies Show?

Studies have asked employees whether or not they are overqualified, and how satisfied they are with their jobs. These studies find a link between the two—people who feel overqualified are less satisfied with their jobs. These studies suggest that companies avoid hiring people who are overqualified because they are likely to be dissatisfied. Since dissatisfaction is linked to negative outcomes for organizations (e.g., customer dissatisfaction and employee turnover), it would make sense to avoid hiring people who are likely to be unhappy with the job. But is this good advice?

How Did We Study Overqualification?

We studied overqualification in a sample of college graduates who had a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the same university. We asked them to complete a survey about their current jobs and how they felt about their jobs.

Our study measured overqualification in two ways. First, we asked employees if they felt overqualified, which is how most studies measure it. Second, we used three different ways to measure the match between the person and the job.

  1. Comparing the level of the person’s education (BA in this case) to the education needed for the job.
  2. Comparing the skills the person had with the skills needed for the job.
  3. Comparing the person’s cognitive ability as reflected by their SAT scores with that needed for the job.

Are Overqualified Workers Unhappy?

Our study found that people who felt overqualified were less satisfied than people who did not feel overqualified. These results are similar to other studies showing this link. However, we found that the match between the person and the job did not relate at all to job satisfaction. Being objectively overqualified did not mean being dissatisfied.

These results suggest that hiring people who are actually overqualified will not necessarily lead to dissatisfaction. There are times that it might make sense to hire someone who is overqualified. Some organizations start people in entry positions and promote them based on performance and skill. Some people will purposely take jobs for which they are overqualified for personal reasons, and be perfectly satisfied. It seems that the connection between overqualification and job satisfaction is complex, and should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

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