Overqualified worker
Is your diploma gathering dust somewhere? Image: iidea studio/Shutterstock

Feeling overqualified in your job? You’re not alone

5 Oct 2017

One in three Irish workers are overqualified for the job they have.

Qualifications are essential to many jobs, but could there be a false perception that qualifications are necessary for all jobs?

Furthermore, how specific do qualifications really have to be? Many different types of experience and education give people the skills and abilities required to do a number of jobs, so who’s to say you really need a master’s in this or a degree in that?

Recent findings from research carried out by the Economic and Social Research Institute between 2000 and 2011 shows that Irish workers are the most overqualified in the EU.

The startling figures show that roughly a third of Irish workers are at least one educational level above the international norm for the jobs they are in. This level is almost twice as high as countries such as France and Sweden.

Furthermore, a recent report from TerminalFour found that less than a third of higher education professionals surveyed stated that they feel highly secure in their current role, while 37pc of respondents said they had high levels of job insecurity.

This does not bode well for the overqualified workers, and with these overqualification levels set to continue, what is the cause?

Changing labour market

Dublin City University’s Prof Joe O’Hara believes there are a number of reasons for over-qualification levels. “The labour market has changed for younger workers and the emergence of the ‘gig economy’ and other more transient, less permanent forms of employment mean that, quite often, individuals are required to work in contexts where their skills and qualifications are not necessarily valued to the extent that they would want them to be.”

O’Hara, who was named the new president of the European Educational Research Association earlier this year, believes while this type of mobile work suits some, it can also lead to significant stress and uncertainty.

“It is also probably fair to say that the emergence of this type of work-life structure resulted from the financial crash of 2008 and has seen a lot of risk transferred from the employer to the worker.”

While a changing labour market and the increasing gig economy could be seen as a global issue, Ireland has its own reason for having a particularly high level of overqualified workers: access to higher education.

“Ireland has significantly increased its rate of higher education participation in recent decades. The 2016 OECD ‘Education at a Glance’ report states that 52pc of Irish 25 to 34-year-olds have a tertiary education compared to an OECD average of 42pc,” said O’Hara.

‘Qualification snobbishness’

O’Hara also believes that, while the often-cited idea of “qualification snobbishness” may play a role in Ireland’s high rate of over-qualification, it is not quite that simple.

“Prior to the financial crash, there was quite a healthy participation rate in apprenticeships structures – particularly in the general building trades areas. However, as soon as the crash came, many apprentices dried up dropping from 8,000 per year pre-crash to less than 1,000 in 2010,” he said.

“While there has been a concerted effort to build these numbers up, there is a time lag. There are also structural problems. Apprenticeship models in Ireland tend to be more expensive because of a reduced specialist input from employers and they have traditionally been confined to certain areas such as construction.

“Claiming that an increase of apprenticeships and the connected shaming of the social-climbing Irish parent will result in a reduction on over-qualification is grossly simplifying a complex reality.”

Too good to be here

Being overqualified can have a negative impact on the employee. O’Hara cited a 2010 Harvard Business Review report, which identified key issues such as a lack of job satisfaction, a general sense of being ‘too good for the job’ and worries about whether individuals will ever get to use a qualification they have.

‘Irish graduates earn, on average, 63pc more than those who complete secondary education only’

“While accepting that there were broader structural issues, they did argue that the onus for addressing many of the problems of morale lay within companies advocating for greater autonomy to be given to workers, more cognisance being taken of their qualification and a less hierarchical approach to decision-making,” he said.

Feeling overqualified can be difficult for the employee, especially if they feel undervalued. However, O’Hara said it’s important to remember the benefits of having that qualification, even if the employee feels like it’s not fully used.

“Irish graduates earn, on average, 63pc more than those who complete secondary education only,” he said.

“While there is no drilling down to see what the average premium is for the ‘overqualified’, it is safe to assume that it’s there and that, over a career,  a higher education or tertiary qualification is worth a significant premium for graduates.”

Help! I’m overqualified

For anyone feeling like they’re part of the one in three overqualified Irish workers, O’Hara said it’s important not to panic about your prospects.

“In a relatively short time period your situation will probably change for the better if international trends are followed.”

He also advised looking at the jobs market to see if there are any gaps you can fill, perhaps with an additional qualification – one that will be more practical for you. “These don’t have to be long-term, high-investment qualifications,” he said. “Look at further education and other colleges to see what is available in a targeted way.”

Graduates should also stop looking at their qualification as something that taught content, but focus on the skills and competencies it gave you overall. “Make the case that is not what you know but that it is what you know how to do that sets you apart.”

Finally, O’Hara encourages all graduates to remain optimistic. “A huge number of individuals who are further along the career path have experienced what you are experiencing now.  They have managed to make use of these experiences and their qualifications to forge successful and fulfilling careers.”

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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