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A degree too high

The State Bank of India (SBI) is offering Rs 8,000 a month for new clerical staff. Whether that’s a respectable pay package or a pittance depends on where you are coming from. For engineers and MBAs — considered among the elite of the nation’s educated — that should be chickenfeed. But there are tens of thousands of such graduates among the 3.4 million applicants.

The figures raise some eyebrows. For several reasons. First, why is the SBI, which holds the world record for the largest number of employees but is otherwise ranked 64th in the list of the world’s top banks, still recruiting? Second, why are so many people queuing up? (It works out to 300 per vacancy.) Third, when you don’t need even a graduate degree, why are MBAs throwing their hat into the ring?

The first answer is easy: SBI has a social obligation. Its role is of a provider of both finance and jobs. It will forever remain big in terms of staff, but pedestrian in terms of performance parameters such as business per employee.

Why are so many people queuing up? Security is one reason. Even a clerk at SBI has a meal ticket for life. You don’t really have to work overmuch. You will get your increments every year. And there is no danger that the organisation will fold up or you will lose your job.

The more difficult question relates to the rush of the overqualified. One answer is they are overqualified only in terms of a degree. In terms of ability, they are actually under qualified. It is a sad reflection on our education system. That’s why, as Larsen & Toubro chairman A.M. Naik laments, engineers run to IT firms to become modern era typists, while his company can’t find the people to help build the nation.

The odd thing here is how recruiters view the overqualified. In the West, they don’t get jobs at times like this. A star salesman will find no takers because companies looking to hire him feel that he will make tracks the moment the job environment improves. Career coaches have devised various strategies to tackle this (see box).

In India, it is a matter of pride to have MBAs working as receptionists and data entry operators. HR men pat themselves on the back because the “image of the company attracts such talent even in lowly positions”. They forget that all these people have to be put through training courses and, even then, several don’t make the cut.

Today, in India, being overqualified isn’t a problem. When degrees can be bought over a university counter, it will never be. But if you are an IIT-IIM graduate and you line up for a clerk’s job at SBI, it is very unlikely that you will get it. People will simply think you are mad and find some other reason to reject you.

It’s not easy, particularly as you climb higher up the ladder. Many top colleges have developed helplines for their alumni. Even in India, there are several out-of-work CEOs who can’t get an equivalent rank elsewhere. They may be ready to join as a humble VP. But which CEO would like to let a wolf into the henhouse? Tomorrow the newcomer may be gunning for his job.

The numbers are difficult to measure. But there is one indicator. Just look at the people who are setting up shop as venture capitalist or private equity investor. The image they present may be otherwise. But, make no mistake: inside every angel, mezzanine or PE investor hides an overqualified CEO who can’t find a half-decent job.

TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE

How to cope with the overqualified tag

Confront the issue upfront. Explain at the start why you are pursuing this particular job. Be honest, but stay positive.

Take money off the table. Normally it’s in a job hunter’s best interest to delay talk of salary for as long as possible. But when pay is the elephant in the room, it’s better to deal with it right away. Sound flexible.

Downplay job titles. Hiring managers get nervous if your last job was as senior VP and you are applying for a project manager position.

Keep your ego in check. Particularly if your interviewer is younger than you, take care not to come off as a know-it-all.

Prove loyalty. If you sense the employer suspects you’ll quit the minute you find something better, mention your longevity at previous jobs.

Offer to sign a contract. Commit to staying for a minimum of a year. Convince the employer this job is exactly what you’re looking for, not a second choice or a stopgap.

Be enthusiastic. Genuine eagerness about the job and a true desire to work for this particular firm will incline hiring managers in your favour.

Let others speak for you. A third party’s endorsement is often more powerful than anything you can say.

Source: Ways to Overcome Being Overqualified, by Karen Burns

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