Overqualification in the Workplace
Summary and Keywords
Overqualification is a unique form of underemployment, which represents a state where the employee’s education, abilities, knowledge, skills, and/or experience exceed job requirements and are not utilized on the job. Potentially conflicting upsides and downsides of the phenomenon created a fruitful area of research. Thus, overqualification has received considerable attention both in the academic literature and popular press.
Studies of overqualification have emerged and received considerable attention in diverse fields including education, labor economics, sociology, management, and psychology. Antecedents of overqualification include individual differences (such as education, personality, age, sex, job search attitudes, previous work experience, past employment history, vocational training and type of degree, migrant status) and environmental dynamics (such as the characteristics of the position held and size of the job market). Commonly studied outcomes of overqualification include job attitudes, performance, proactive behaviors and creativity, counterproductive behaviors, absenteeism and turnover, health and well-being, feelings of job security, wages, upward mobility, and interpersonal relationships. While the effects are typically negative, there are some contemporary findings revealing the potential benefits of overqualified employees for their work groups and organizations. In recent years, boundary conditions shaping the effects of overqualification have also been identified, including factors such as empowerment and autonomy, overqualification of referent others, personality traits, and values.
Despite the accumulating research on this topic, many unanswered questions remain. Conflicting findings on some of the outcomes and limited empirical investigations of theory-based mediators promise a lively and still developing field of research.
When employees are looking for jobs, typically they are looking for positions that will utilize, benefit from, and reward the skills, abilities, education, and other qualifications they bring to the workplace. Similarly, fit is a key concern for recruiters and hiring managers (Erdogan, Bauer, Peiró, & Truxillo, 2011a; Kristof-Brown, Zimmerman, & Johnson, 2005). However, due to reasons such as a weak economy and strong competition among highly educated job candidates, absence of perfect information about applicants and job characteristics, and frictions in the job market that prevent perfect matching of jobs and applicants such as the mobility of job applicants (Li & Miller, 2015), there are instances where employees accept positions for which they are overqualified. Overqualification refers to a situation where a person’s qualifications including education, skills, training, and experience exceed job requirements in such a way that the individual has many skills and qualifications that are neither required, nor utilized by the job (Erdogan et al., 2011a; Liu & Wang, 2012). Feldman (1996), two decades ago, made the case that overqualification is a type of underemployment. In other words, along with conditions such as working in a part time job even though one prefers full-time employment, and working in a job with a significantly lower salary than the one held before, overqualification describes an undesirable work situation that falls short of full employment. Since Feldman’s (1996) and subsequently McKee-Ryan and Harvey’s (2011) reviews, the topic remains of interest to scholars and practitioners alike.
In this article, the authors aim to synthesize, summarize, and critique the accumulated body of literature on the topic of overqualification. Our objective is to take stock of what we know about overqualification and present a roadmap for future scholars regarding where further work is needed. An exciting, but unusual, feature of the topic of overqualification is that it is an incredibly diverse body of literature with scholars in fields as diverse as labor economics, sociology, education, management, and psychology investigating the nature, causes, and implications of overqualification. It is possible for scholars within one field to neglect important developments in others and miss the opportunity to create synergies. Therefore, wherever possible, we do not limit our review to a specific subdiscipline and instead attempt to summarize and integrate the accumulated body of knowledge regardless of the source discipline.
What Exactly Is Overqualification? How Is It Measured?
Overqualification may take many different forms. The variety of different forms of overqualification and the diversity of the literatures focusing on the phenomenon resulted in a multiplicity of approaches to its measurement. Since overqualification is an umbrella-like term, a close look to its unique forms and classifications is useful to prevent overlooking the diversity of measurement approaches in this area.
Perhaps the most frequently studied form of overqualification, particularly by economists and education scholars, is the case of overeducation (Erdogan & Mansfield, 2016). Overeducated individuals occupy positions that significantly exceed educational qualifications needed by the job. Overeducation is regarded as a societal issue, as it could indicate overinvestment in human capital that goes underutilized by the jobs available. Therefore, the study of overeducation is of importance to scholars in labor economics and education. It is possible to also extrapolate to other qualifications that may exceed job requirements, such as overexperience, overskilling, or overtraining. However, it seems that whenever scholars focus on a single dimension on which an individual is overqualified, the focus has typically been on overeducation (e.g., Hersch, 1991).
When measuring overeducation, or any other skill or qualification on which overqualification occurs, there seem to be four distinct measurement approaches (Verhaest & Omey, 2006). Direct self-assessment refers to simply asking individuals if they feel overeducated for their jobs. Indirect self-assessment involves asking the individuals themselves their education level and asking them a separate question regarding the educational requirements of their jobs, using a difference score to operationalize overeducation. The job analysis method involves individuals reporting their own education level, whereas the job’s education requirements are reported by a job analysis. Finally, the realized matches approach is where having an education level that is considered atypical for the job in question (such as one standard deviation above the occupational mean). Each of these approaches has their unique strengths as well as potential limitations. For example, problems associated with difference scores exist (Edwards, 2001; Edwards & Parry, 1993). Job analyst ratings of jobs are hard to come by, and this assessment is more likely to capture the job as it typically occurs in the economy, rather than how it is defined in a specific organization. The realized matches approach ignores the possibility of education inflation in an occupation: It is possible that a job that used to require a high school degree may now require a college degree without a corresponding upgrade of job demands. Asking individuals direct questions tackles these questions, but introduces self-enhancement bias, or other personality traits that may result in an individual looking down on a job. Furthermore, there are studies that present theoretical arguments and empirical evidence revealing the problematic nature of assuming that overeducation is a valid indicator of skill mismatch (Halaby, 1994).
Complicating the matter even further, whether overeducation should be calculated by examining a job’s entry requirements or whether it should focus on what the job actually requires to perform it at an adequate level is unclear, and there are examples of both approaches in the literature. For example, Kler, Leeves, and Shankar (2015) use the metric of having education more than the minimum required to perform the job. Others such as Frenette (2000) utilize the difference between one’s level of education and the level required to get the job, or Croce and Ghignoni (2015) who ask whether one’s educational degree is necessary to perform the job. Hersch (1995) asked whether the person has a higher level of education than the level the average person would need to do the job, not just to be hired. Still others use more vague wording such as having qualifications superior to the job (Frei & Sousa-Poza, 2012). Of course, a job’s entry requirements may change over time, and individuals may have difficulty recollecting the entry requirements post entry.
Even measuring the “level of education one has” may be deceptively simple to gather, but it too comes with unintended consequences. Brynin and Longhi (2009) distinguished between years spent in education and degree earned and made the case that excess time spent in education may indicate lack of motivation or dedication to one’s studies, and therefore degree earned may be a better metric. As this discussion of measurement approaches illustrates, measurement of individual dimensions on which overqualification may occur is inconsistent from study to study, making it difficult to summarize and extend prior work.
In the management and industrial/organizational psychology literatures, the focus is typically on perceived overqualification. There are two commonly utilized measures, both of them measuring different dimensions of overqualification, or the possession of skills and qualifications not required or utilized on the job. Johnson and Johnson’s (2000b) scale of overqualification consists of two dimensions: Mismatch, or the possession of surplus qualifications that exceed the job requirements, and No Grow, or the absence of opportunities to use one’s skills and learn new skills. In their validation study, Johnson, Morrow, and Johnson (2002) showed that the No Grow dimension actually showed higher correlations with outcomes such as work and supervisor satisfaction. However, the mismatch dimension is the one most closely linked to the theoretical definition of overqualification (Maynard, Joseph, & Maynard, 2006). Therefore, subsequent research typically focused only on this dimension and its four-item scale, and excluded the No Grow dimension from analyses (e.g., Erdogan & Bauer, 2009; Hu et al., 2015). Johnson and Johnson’s measure is actually based on Khan and Morrow’s (1991) earlier measure. Its length and diverse content (it focuses on education-, experience-, and skill-based overqualification) often yields borderline reliabilities (Nunnally, 1978). For example, Johnson and Johnson (2000b) reported reliabilities of .73 and .70 in their two samples. As a replacement to this measure, Maynard et al. (2006) developed a longer (9 items), psychometrically sound, and validated measure that is more commonly in use. The original scale was validated in three separate studies using outcomes such as organizational commitment, turnover intentions, and facets of job satisfaction.
Finally, there is also a somewhat related cognitive overqualification scale by Fine and Nevo (2008). Cognitive overqualification refers to the extent to which an individual’s cognitive abilities are neither required nor used by the job. Because it captures mental skills that exceed the level of job challenge involved in the position, it is proposed to be an important type of overqualification with implications for attitudes and performance. Fine and Nevo (2008) examined 156 call center representatives in the United States in their study and showed that cognitive overqualification was more strongly and negatively associated with job satisfaction compared to overall perceived overqualification. It was also positively related to training performance. In a separate study, cognitive overqualification has been shown to be positively related to being evaluated as a leader by one’s peers and supervisors during a training program, and negative attitudes toward the training program (Fine, 2007).
Measurement inconsistency remains an important concern in aggregating and making sense of the findings of overqualification literature. Oftentimes, studies of overqualification, and particularly overeducation, rely on single-item indicators and large national samples. The size, diversity, and representativeness of the sample come at the expense of valid measurement. For example, Wu, Luksyte, and Parker (2015) used the item “I have the skills to handle more demanding duties” to capture overqualification, which may also be tapping into concepts such as self-efficacy and confidence as much as overqualification. The nature of the overqualification studies often necessitates the use of large-scale studies where single-item measures are used, and it is important to ensure that these scales all measure the same underlying construct.
A distinction is made by Green and Zhu (2010) between real and formal overqualification, the former referring to individuals who are both overqualified and overskilled, and the latter referring to individuals who are overqualified while experiencing full skill utilization. In a more recent study, Maltarich, Reilly, and Nyberg (2011) made a powerful argument that perceived and objective overqualification may not necessarily capture the same phenomenon, and they may not be easily used as substitutes of each other. Objective overqualification is visible to others, involves qualifications that have market value, and could predict ease of movement across jobs. Perceived overqualification is psychological in nature and is more likely to reflect one’s overall experiences and treatment at work, along with mismatched qualifications. For this reason, Maltarich and colleagues suggested that investigating the link between the two metrics and differentiating their implications are important research directions.
Theoretical Foundations of Overqualification
Perhaps the most commonly used theory to explain why felt overqualification is undesirable is the relative deprivation theory (Crosby, 1984). Relative deprivation occurs when an individual wants something, feels entitled to have it, and feels deprived of it. Employees who feel overqualified believe that given their skills, education, and abilities, they are entitled to a higher-quality job. This sense of deprivation is theorized to be associated with negative effects on job satisfaction (Johnson & Johnson, 2000a). Relative deprivation theory is a justice-based theory, and therefore other justice theories such as equity theory have also been proposed as potential explanations of the effects of felt overqualification (Feldman, 1996). Feldman, Leana, and Bolino (2002) showed that relative deprivation acted as a mediator of the relationship between perceived underemployment and job attitudes.
In the education literature, the concept of habitus explains the effects of overeducation. Individuals going through the education system develop expectations regarding the characteristics of the “appropriate” job, with corresponding requirements of education, offerings of salary, working conditions, and identity. When these expectations are not met, they experience cognitive dissonance, and they perceive the job as “beneath them,” mentally rejecting the position and experiencing dissatisfaction (Vaisey, 2006).
Status inconsistency theory (Blalock, 1966; Hope, 1975) has been used to explain the effects of overeducation. According to this perspective, mismatch between the realized positions of a person in different status hierarchies is a cause for concern. For example, a college-educated person in a job where the typical job incumbent holds a high school degree is an example of status inconsistency. This situation indicates a social status discrepancy and leads to social stress. Garcy (2015) predicted that a status panic is likely among individuals who find themselves in this situation. What distinguishes a status inconsistency explanation to perceived overqualification from a relative deprivation-based explanation is the explicit focus on social status expectations that come from one’s qualifications. According to this view, the person suffers not necessarily because of a mismatch between one’s jobs and skills and a sense of skill underutilization. Similarly, the concern is not necessarily around the objective characteristics of the job such as pay. What this perspective emphasizes is around the feeling of status deprivation. Burris (1983) argued that one possible outcome of this would be that these individuals would pay greater attention to the status conferring features of their lives and seek to satisfy their status needs through emphasizing certain distinctions peripheral to their work. This theory may also be used to predict that overqualified employees will behave in a way that will increase their social credentials. Collins and Long (2015) showed a connection between overeducation and engagement in volunteering behavior. This finding may indicate an attempt by overqualified employees to achieve social status and standing. Friedland and Price (2003) attempted to distinguish the effects of overeducation from status underemployment, and found stronger negative effects on outcomes such as physical and mental health and well-being for status underemployment.
How Temporary Is Overqualification?
Is overqualification temporary or relatively permanent? This is an important question in the overeducation literature, and there are theoretical arguments on both sides (Kiersztyn, 2013). On the one hand, individuals will not realistically get a sense of the qualification levels of the job until they start performing it. Once they start their position and realize a mismatch, one argument is that they should be able to upgrade quickly. In other words, it is assumed that individuals desire match, and once a mismatch is realized, they will take action by either changing jobs or negotiating for different duties to improve their match. The opposing argument though is that overqualification will act as a trap. Accepting a job for which one is overqualified will make job change difficult because their skills will atrophy with little opportunities for improvement or gaining new skills. Signaling theory of Spence (1973) may also be used to predict that overqualification will be a long-term phenomenon. According to this theory, skills acquired by the person are not always acquired with the purpose of being used on the actual job. The purpose of some skills and qualifications is to signal to recruiters that one is capable and valuable. Based on this rationale, a person who starts out overqualified will remain so over time.
There seems to be some evidence on both sides. For example, Alba-Ramirez (1993) used a sample of over 11,000 workers from Spain and showed that overeducated employees were younger and less experienced than adequately educated employees, and they improved their match over time, suggesting that overeducation is a way in which individuals acquire the experience they need and is a short-lived phenomenon. Vogtenhuber (2014), studying 15–34 year olds in an Austrian sample, showed that individuals typically improved the level of match with their jobs over time. Frei and Sousa-Poza (2012) used the Swiss Household panel and showed that more than 60% of overqualified employees were not overqualified the next year and that 90% were able to escape overqualification in four years. Interestingly, in this particular study, those who escaped overqualification from one year to the next did not necessarily improve their match by changing employers: 87% of those who improved their match stayed with the same employer.
In contrast, Kiersztyn (2013) used Polish panel data to show that overeducated employees were four times more likely to be overeducated five years later compared to others. Sloane, Battu, and Seaman (1999) examined a large sample of British workers to find no support for the matching hypothesis. In fact, overeducated employees were likely to be those who had been unemployed before, and the greater the number of job changes employees experienced, the greater was the level of overeducation. These studies suggest that overeducation may not necessarily be resolved over time as individuals improve their match through job changes. Instead, there is some evidence that overeducation may have scarring effects.
What Causes Overqualification?
There are many factors that are thought to result in the condition of being or feeling overqualified for one’s job. For example, Johnson and Johnson (2000a) noted that the increase in job applicant qualifications faster than jobs that required these qualifications is a key reason for overqualification. Further, factors pushing job applicants to accept suboptimal positions, such as restructuring and layoffs, are increasingly common, and are among the culprits of the rise in employee overqualification. Wright (2014) proposed that many college graduates may in fact end up in positions that do not require those degrees, because their skills are deficient due to absence of rigor in their educational program. An examination of studies of predictors of overqualification typically focus on more micro factors and particularly job incumbent characteristics.
The type, quality, and level of one’s education is the natural first place to look at when examining antecedents of overqualification. In many parts of the world, including Asia and Europe, education is the beginning of one’s career, and individuals start working only after completing their formal education. Further, when individuals are unable to secure a position that matches their level of education or aspirations, they may delay their job search by staying in school longer, which should have the effect of further overqualification down the line. Supporting this notion, Vogtenhuber (2014) examined over 4,000 employed individuals from the Austrian labor force survey and showed that vocational education reduced the likelihood of being overeducated in one’s first job. In other words, gaining work experience during school years may present a smoother transition to the labor force, reducing overeducation. The type of education the person has is also a factor affecting overeducation. In a study of Canadian college graduates, those who reported having masters degrees, as well as humanities and arts majors reported higher overeducation, whereas other majors such as law or medicine carried low risk of overeducation (Frenette, 2000, 2004).
The quality of the diploma may also matter, but this is harder to assess. Lianos, Asteriou, and Agiomirgianakis (2004) examined Greek students who earned foreign degrees and came back to Greece to work. Among these employees, holding a degree from EU countries was associated with lower risk of overeducation compared to holding a degree from Balkan countries. Støren and Wiers-Jenssen (2010) compared local and foreign diploma earners in Norway, and showed that Norwegians educated in Norway had a lower likelihood of being overeducated compared to those with foreign diplomas.
There also seems to be some evidence that migrant workers are more likely to experience overqualification. This may be explained by the skill compensation theory (Johnston, Khattab, & Manley, 2015) which suggests that employees who are deficient in some skills may accept jobs that make them overqualified in other ways, such as trading off of lack of experience with a surplus of education. Migrant employees may lack the social capital and country-specific skills that would make them more employable, resulting in a higher rate of overqualification. For example, Johnston et al. (2015) showed that East European migrants to Britain had greater levels of overeducation (they had atypically high levels of education in their occupations) compared to local workers, and their overeducation level was greater than that of West Europeans. In Canada, Livingstone (2010) showed that more recent immigrants to Canada reported greatest levels of overeducation compared to immigrants who had been in the country longer and compared to Canadian-born employees. In the United States, Madamba and De Jong (1997) found that immigrants were anywhere between 48% to as much as six times more likely than native-born employees to be overeducated for their jobs. Interestingly, this study found that fluency in English increased the chances of being overeducated, which may indicate that immigrants are more likely to end up in positions where they are overeducated, and even this situation may be possible only when they have sufficient language proficiency to obtain the job.
Factors that may help migrants to reduce their risk of overeducation were also identified. Griesshaber and Seibel (2015) showed in a study of 19 European countries that overeducation level was lower among active migrant members of voluntary associations compared to nonmembers, demonstrating the role of acculturation experiences.
Providing evidence that different dimensions of human capital may substitute for each other, there is evidence that overeducation levels are higher among those who have lower levels of experience and tenure (Sloane et al., 1999). At the same time, staying in a position for too long may result in a sense of overqualification as well. To the degree to which the person masters one’s job without having the opportunity to improve one’s skills, feelings of overqualification may develop. For example, Burke (1997) showed in a sample of Canadian university graduates that years spent in one’s job was positively related to perceived overeducation.
Job search is a costly investment, and it cannot continue indefinitely. In order to avoid remaining unemployed for too long, individuals may accept positions beneath their qualifications. This is a likely case particularly for the new entrants of the workforce. Thus, the investigation of job seekers’ anticipations also has the potential to reveal an important antecedent of overqualification. In their three-wave study Guerrero and Hatala (2015) focused on job search intensity, but revealed surprising results. Perceived overqualification was lowest among those who did not search for a job intensely, but also had high levels of financial needs. This study indicates that more research is needed to investigate job seeker behaviors and eventual overqualification.
Frank (1978) developed the “theory of differential overqualification” as an explanation for why women get paid less than men, and posited that married women have a greater risk of being overeducated for their jobs. Discussing the difficulty of optimizing job search in a dual-career couple, Frank argued that couples would solve this situation by optimizing the husband’s job search first, deeming women to be the “tied movers” or “tied stayers.” Particularly in cases where the couple moves to or chooses to stay in a small labor market, this would jeopardize the wife’s job opportunities, restricting options and increasing the likelihood of their being overeducated for their jobs. There is some support for this theory, but the evidence is, much like the theory itself, dated, and findings would benefit from updating. For example, Büchel and Battu (2003) examined the 1995 data from German Socioeconomic Panel and showed that married women had higher rates of overeducation compared to both unmarried women and men of all marital status. The theory most likely does not reflect the contemporary arrangements and societal changes in how married and unmarried dual career couples make decisions, and it is unclear whether there is any truth in this theory today. At the same time, how dual career couples make career-related decisions and deal with the overqualification of one or both members of the couple is an interesting research area.
The idea that migration may reduce overeducation, and that married women may be overeducated because they have difficulty migrating, seems to have some validity. Quinn and Rubb (2011) used University of Michigan’s panel study of income dynamics and showed that overqualification was in fact a predictor of migration for men and women in dual-career couples. Interestingly, migration increased the chances that men would be less likely to be overeducated for their subsequent jobs, whereas it was not effective in reducing overeducation in women. These results provide some further evidence that in dual-career couples, gender dynamics may play out in a way that disadvantages the female partner, affecting their rate of overeducation.
Age is another personal characteristic that has been associated with overqualification. There is some evidence that younger employees are more likely to be overqualified due to the absence of work experience and potential for taking some time to find one’s match. For example, Hultin, Lundberg, Lundin, and Magnusson (2016) showed that in a large population survey of Sweden, younger people were more likely to be overeducated. Similar results were found for U.S. workers as well (Szydlik, 2002).
Interestingly, contradicting the expectation that younger workers are more likely to be overqualified, Madamba and De Jong (1997) showed that older workers (whom they defined as 46–64 years of age) were more likely to be overeducated for their jobs compared to 25–30 year olds. The authors explained this unusual finding with the potential for displacement due to layoffs and inability to find sufficient quality employment following layoffs. It is also likely that worries over age discrimination and greater job embeddedness among these workers may prevent them from leaving their jobs even after they become experts in their position, leading to the feeling that they are overqualified for their current jobs. Finally, older workers may see their current positions as bridge employment, and choose or stay in positions where they are overqualified to reduce the mental overload and challenge that could be characteristic of better-fitting positions. Shultz, Olson, and Wang (2011) argued that because they would enter into overqualification knowingly, even though they may have higher levels of overqualification, they may experience fewer negative consequences in reaction to feeling overqualified.
Researchers considered the possibility that perceptions of overqualification may be a function of one’s own personality. Narcissism is an interesting candidate as an antecedent. To the degree to which felt overqualification is the belief that one deserves a better job than currently held, extreme feelings of self-worth could be one explanation. Supporting this possibility, Lobene, Meade, and Pond (2015) studied the relationship between narcissism and perceived cognitive overqualification, demonstrating a significant relationship. Watt and Hargis (2010) identified boredom proneness as another personality trait increasing the likelihood of perceived overqualification, by showing a positive link between the two.
The characteristics of the position held, including how routine, repetitive, and meaningful the job is could be related to felt overqualification. This is because some jobs may be regarded so simple or so easy to master that regardless of one’s qualifications, employees may feel that their qualifications exceed job requirements. This prediction found some support in the literature. Lobene et al. (2015) showed that among several antecedents of overqualification they examined, the repetitiveness of the job was the strongest predictor of perceived cognitive overqualification. Madamba and De Jong (1997) used U.S. census data and compared overeducation rates of employees in different industries and professions, and showed that managerial and professional workers had the lowest likelihood of being overeducated compared to other occupations. In a Spanish study, Sáez, González-Prieto, and Cantarero-Prieto (2016) showed that service workers were among those with the highest levels of overeducation.
Past Employment History
There is some evidence that overqualification may be more likely for employees who underwent a layoff or experienced unemployment. For example, Hultin et al. (2016) found in a Swedish sample that having experienced unemployment was a predictor of greater levels of overeducation in the current job.
Size of the Job Market
As a sign of mismatch between qualifications and the job, overeducation also is more likely in smaller job markets, which can either be a permanent feature stemming from high population and intense competition or a temporary characteristic of the market due to recession. In such cases, individuals may be able to reduce their chances of overqualification by increasing the size of their market through relocation and commuting. Note that for relocation and commuting, the dynamics are different compared to migrant workers. For migrants from a different country, lack of knowledge of the culture, lack of a social network, and language present barriers to a well-matching job, and employees settle down into positions lower than their qualifications. For domestic workers, moving to a bigger city or increasing commute time may improve the job match. Croce and Ghignoni (2015) analyzed data from a nationwide Italian survey to test this spatial flexibility hypothesis and showed that for those holding an upper secondary degree, commuting reduced the risk of overeducation, whereas for college graduates, relocation reduced this risk. Contradicting these findings, Romaní, Casado-Díaz, and Lillo-Bañuls (2016) did not find a relationship between commuting or relocating. However, individual willingness to change residences to accommodate company needs reduced the probability of overeducation.
System-wide exploration of overqualification is somewhat limited in number and mostly composed of theoretical discussions while there is a call for a multilevel perspective. Focusing on 24 European countries, Flisi, Goglio, Meroni, Rodrigues, and Vera-Toscano (2017) examined the frequency of overeducation and overskilling comparatively. The study examined the prevalence of overeducation and skill utilization across the sampled countries. The results showed that in Italy, Spain, and Ireland, overeducation was prevalent, but skill underutilization was not. In Scandinavian countries and Eastern European countries, overskilling was prevalent, but overeducation was not.
Similarly, Green and Henseke (2016) showed country-level differences in the prevalence of overeducation. In their study of 21 OECD countries, 50% of their Japanese sample was overeducated, whereas only 11% of the Finnish sample reported overeducation. Countries with low demand for college-educated workers had higher levels of overeducation. This and similar studies suggest that the national context may change the prevalence of overqualification, and this could potentially affect how employees react to overqualification.
How Does Overqualification Affect Employees?
In a review article, Feldman (1996) proposed that underemployment, including felt overqualification, would be negatively related to job attitudes such as job satisfaction, organizational commitment, work involvement, and work motivation. There is some evidence for this. Interestingly, Johnson and Johnson (2000a), in their study of postal workers surveyed twice over two years, found no link between perceived overqualification and satisfaction with work itself. This is an unexpected finding, as the most salient outcome of perceived overqualification does not seem to be satisfaction with the actual work performed. Overqualification has been shown to be related to satisfaction with different aspects of one’s job, including intrinsic, extrinsic, and social elements (Peiró, Agut, & Grau, 2010) suggesting that employee negative reactions may be due to dissatisfaction with social status and rewards associated with the job, rather than the work being performed.
Interestingly, despite their superior qualifications, overqualified employees do not seem to be experiencing greater security in their jobs. Perhaps their lack of attachment to the organization is apparent to employers, which results in lower levels of attachment on their part to the employee. Alternatively, to the degree to which overqualified employees withdraw from their jobs and withhold effort, they may be jeopardizing their positions. In any case, there is some evidence that overeducation negatively predicts job security (Kler et al., 2015) and this effect seems to be stronger following an economic crisis and for those employees who have partners.
Health and Well-Being
Implications of overqualification on employee health and physical and mental well-being are among other important avenues for investigation. Feldman’s (1996) review posited negative implications of overqualification on well-being indicators such as life satisfaction, optimism, and self-esteem. Further, Feldman proposed relations on one’s personal relationships such as those with one’s spouse, friends, and children. Supporting this argument, Roh, Chang, Kim, and Nam (2014) found that the well-being, self-esteem, and life satisfaction levels of overqualified employees did not differ from unemployed individuals and were worse than those of the adequately employed.
Hultin et al. (2016) proposed that overqualification may be associated with poor health due to reasons including lower job satisfaction, higher social stress, lower cognitive resilience, and greater exposure to poor-quality work. Alternatively, they recognized that overqualification may be a consequence of poor health, as those in less than ideal health may have difficulty finding and keeping a job matching their qualifications and find themselves working in jobs beneath their skill levels.
There are a small number of investigations linking overqualification to health outcomes. For example, there is evidence of a link between overqualification and self-reported stress and depression (Bracke, Pattyn, & von dem Knesebeck, 2013; Johnson & Johnson, 1996). Johnson and Johnson (1997) found negative effects on self-rated health, but the magnitude of the effect was small. Further, the effects of overqualification on health were weaker for those employees who received emotional support from others. This finding supports the idea that overqualification is a type of stressor, and buffers of stress in the form of personal and job-related resources could be moderators of this relationship. Finally, Johnson and Johnson’s (1999) follow-up showed positive correlations between perceived overqualification, self-reported depression, and self-reported declines in one’s health. More recently, in a large population study, Garcy (2015) pointed to a link between overeducation and mortality rates, particularly mortality from cancer and alcohol, as well as suicide. In other words, there seems to be a connection between overqualification in one’s job and health.
It is unclear whether the relationship between overqualification and health outcomes reflects a causal link. As a case in point, Hultin et al. (2016) examined a large sample of Swedish workers to show that there was in fact a relationship between overeducation and self-reported health, but only for women. No relationship was observed with mental health. More importantly, the observed relationship did not hold once the job’s qualification level was controlled. In other words, the observed overqualification–health relationship may be due to the quality of the job rather than the surplus of the skills, with jobs that are routine and monotonous creating health risks. It is possible that the proposed link to health is too distal, and there may be factors that explain both overqualification and poor health. Findings such as Stenfors, Hanson, Oxenstierna, Theorell, and Nilsson’s (2013) study on a large Swedish sample which showed that overeducation was associated with cognitive difficulties (concentration, memory, decision making, and ability to think clearly) could be explained by job characteristics, as routine and monotonous jobs could be regarded as hazards for mental well-being.
Finally, there is also some evidence that the effects on health may actually be favorable under some conditions. In a study contradicting others, Büchel (2002) examined German household panel data for 1984–1995 for low-qualification jobs and showed that overeducation was positively related to self-reported health. The author attributed this finding to choice, and predicted that employees pushed to jobs where they are overqualified and others who select the jobs where they are overqualified will have differing reactions.
An interesting research direction, where research is still scarce, relates to the link between overqualification and safety at work. A study of over 10,000 Canadian workers found that overeducation for the job increased both job injury risk and repetitive motion injury risk (Premji & Smith, 2013). One explanation for this finding could be job characteristics rather than the level of education exceeding job requirements. The authors of the study suggested a different and plausible mechanism: overeducation may result in lack of solidarity with coworkers, increasing the risk of injuries at work.
Overqualification involves taking a job beneath one’s skill levels, and this often means accepting a job that pays less than what the individual could make given their skill levels. Scholars of overeducation are particularly interested in calculating returns to education for adequately matched and overqualified employees. The accumulated body of literature suggests that overeducated employees experience a wage penalty such that they make less than those who are at their education level but placed at jobs that match their qualifications, but these individuals make more than others who have less education than them (e.g., Rubb, 2003; Verhaest & Omey, 2006). For example, a college graduate working at a job that requires a high school education typically makes less than a college graduate working at a job that requires college, but makes more than a high school graduate working in a job that requires a high school degree.
In addition to an examination of actual wages, studies examined the link between overqualification and satisfaction with pay. This relationship has been shown to be negative (Johnson & Johnson, 2000a). In other words, even though there may in fact be a pay premium compared to what others who perform similar jobs are paid, overqualified employees may be aware that they should be making more relative to others at the same education level, which may explain their unhappiness with their pay.
In addition to viewing wages as a consequence of overqualification, it is possible to consider it an antecedent. Lobene et al. (2015) examined one’s hourly wages as a predictor of felt overqualification, identifying a modest relationship. This is an interesting take on the nature of felt overqualification–wage and earnings relationship. In fact, wages may provide the cues that influence whether employees feel overqualified for their jobs. Controlling for job characteristics, higher-paid employees may report lower levels of overqualification, whereas lower-paid employees may feel a sense of entitlement toward a higher quality job, reporting higher levels of overqualification.
Finally, there is some evidence that overeducation may have lasting effects on one’s wages in the long run. Verbruggen, van Emmerik, Van Gils, Meng, and de Grip (2015) showed that among the alumni of a Dutch university, overeducation measured one year post graduation had negative effects on one’s wages 10 years post graduation. A likely explanation for this finding is skill obsolescence and the lack of opportunities for further skill development that may be prevalent in positions where the person is overeducated.
Unlike attitudinal implications of perceived overqualification, there is some evidence that the effects of overqualification on job performance is often positive. To the degree to which overqualification means meeting and exceeding qualifications required by the job, there is reason to expect that overqualified employees may have a performance advantage due to their superior skills. At the same time, they are likely to experience lower levels of motivation, resulting in a situation where performance effects may be positive as long as they are motivated to perform. Supporting this argument, Fine and Nevo (2007) examined the relationship between cognitive overqualification and training performance, showing that there was no decline in the relationship between cognitive abilities and performance, even though there was a ceiling effect after a certain point. Fine and Nevo (2008), in a sample of call center representatives, showed positive relations between perceived overqualification, self- and manager-rated performance.
Finally, there are also studies demonstrating a negative relationship between perceived overqualification and job performance. Chen (2009) showed that perceived overqualification was negatively related to manager-rated job performance and organizational citizenship behaviors when manager–employee relationship quality was low. A systematic investigation of overqualification–performance relationship accounting for different measurement perspectives and dimensions of performance is warranted.
Proactive Behaviors and Creativity
Because overqualified employees feel that they bring a higher skill set to their jobs, they may have the potential to engage in discretionary actions that will benefit the organization. Proactive behaviors and creativity are among such actions where overqualification may prove to be an advantage. There is some evidence that felt overqualification may have positive effects on proactive behaviors. For example, Zhang, Law, and Lin (2016) conducted two studies in China and showed that perceived overqualification was positively associated with employee proactive behaviors because overqualified employees expressed greater levels of role-based self-efficacy. Further, perceived overqualification has been shown to be related to creative behaviors. However, this was a conditional relationship such that overqualification was positively related to employee creativity only when employees perceived high levels of support from the organization (POS), and only when individuals had successfully negotiated idiosyncratic deals (i-deals, Luksyte & Spitzmueller, 2016). Recently, Lin, Law, and Zhou (2017) executed a three-wave time-lagged survey on 327 teachers and their immediate supervisors to investigate the conditions under which organizations may benefit from underemployed staff. They found that organizational identification moderated the underemployment and task-crafting relation. In other words, there are conditions under which organizations can take advantage of proactivity and creativity of these employees, by showing their support of them and allowing them to have unique arrangements that differ from other employees.
In contrast, there is also evidence that overqualification may result in a more rigid interpretation of one’s role. Agut, Peiró, and Grau (2009) surveyed 638 young Spanish workers and showed that overeducation was negatively related to content innovation, and having high levels of personal initiative resulted in even lower levels of content innovation for overeducated workers. These results suggest a need for more work linking overqualification to proactivity, innovation, and creativity.
Counterproductive Work Behaviors
Perceived overqualification has been linked to behaviors that harm the organization, namely counterproductive work behaviors. For example, Liu, Luksyte, Zhou, Shi, and Wang (2015) demonstrated that perceived overqualification was associated with counterproductive behaviors directing supervisors, such as speaking poorly about the supervisor, and those targeting the organization, including behaviors such as spending time on tasks unrelated to work.
In the overeducation literature, it has been proposed that overqualification is a “stepping stone” to a better job. In fact, career mobility theory (Sicherman & Galor, 1990) posited that overeducation may be beneficial for individuals by increasing their chances of upward mobility within or outside the organization. Overqualified employees may be ready for advancement to the next job, and therefore even though they may be overqualified for their current jobs, their advancement may be faster, and overqualification may be less dissatisfactory as a result. To date, investigations of career mobility theory typically took place in the overeducation literature with large national databases representing a large number of job types, and the theory did not find empirical support (e.g., Verhaest & Omey, 2006). In contradiction with the career mobility theory, Johnson and Johnson (2000a) showed a negative relationship between perceived overqualification and satisfaction with promotion opportunities, which suggests that overqualified employees may be thwarted in their upward advancement. At the same time, Hersch (1995) showed in a study of 451 employees in one organization that overeducation at organizational entry was associated with subsequent promotions received. This study also revealed that overeducation predicted a shorter training time. It is plausible that the relationship between overqualification and upward advancement is contingent on the position in question and the organization’s philosophy regarding upward mobility.
Sikora, Thompson, Russell, and Ferris (2016) posited that overqualified employees whose upward mobility ambitions are thwarted are more likely to leave. Therefore, organizations may retain these employees by satisfying their career-related needs. Oftentimes, upward mobility may not be possible due to lack of opportunities, but they recommended that factors such as job crafting, opportunities to mentor others, and serving as informal leaders may be some of the ways through which career-related needs of employees can be satisfied. In other words, examining a broader set of indicators of mobility and advancement may increase our understanding of career implications of overqualification.
How does feeling overqualified translate into one’s relationship with, attitudes toward, and interactions with other organizational members such as coworkers? In an early qualitative work based on a small sample of low-level clerical workers, Burris (1983) found that overeducated employees reported feeling competitiveness from their coworkers and that they distanced themselves from their coworkers in an elitist manner. In fact, they actually reported socializing with their manager rather than coworkers.
Systematic examinations of how overqualification affects workplace relationships are rare. There are a small number of studies that indicated no relationship between overqualification and interpersonal relationship quality. Johnson and Johnson (2000a) found no relationship between overqualification and satisfaction with supervision. Chen (2009) examined, but did not find a relationship between perceived overqualification and citizenship behaviors targeting coworkers. It has been suggested that overqualified employees may play an informal leadership role and mentor others around them, which would add to their own reputation and social capital development (Russell, Ferris, Thompson, & Sikora, 2016), but this possibility has not yet been tested. One recent study (Deng et al., in press) found that the relationship between overqualification and coworker acceptance depended on the employee’s own political skills. In other words, much like the rest of the literature, overqualification’s relation with coworker interactions may be conditional.
Absenteeism and Turnover
Perhaps the most logical outcome of overqualification is leaving one’s job to improve the match between one’s qualifications and job requirements. Of course, employees may achieve match through other means such as higher levels of empowerment, through idiosyncratic deals or job crafting. When a solution is not within reach, turnover is an expected reaction. Maynard and Parfyonova (2013) showed a positive link between perceived overqualification, job search, and turnover, and this relationship was stronger for employees higher in competence and growth needs. Erdogan and Bauer (2009) showed a positive link with turnover intentions and turnover only when psychological empowerment was low.
It is also plausible that employees psychologically leave their jobs while not quitting. Based on this rationale, employee feelings of overqualification should be positively related to absenteeism, lateness, and other behavioral forms of withdrawal. However, Lobene et al. (2015) found no relationship between perceived cognitive overqualification and self- or manager-rated absenteeism and tardiness.
The relationship between overqualification and turnover assumes that overqualified employees are not motivated to stay in the organization. At the same time, research also shows that overqualified employees may end up being pushed out of organizations due to not being viewed as valuable members of the organization. Supporting this idea, Peiró, Sora, and Caballer (2012) conducted a survey of over 3,000 Spanish employees and showed that perceived overqualification predicted perceived job insecurity.
How Does Overqualification Affect Organizational Outcomes?
Interestingly, studies of overqualification have been limited to its implications on individuals, rather than groups and organizations. This is a curious omission and an exciting research opportunity. Do organizations that hire highly skilled employees regardless of where they will be placed experience advantages such as improved creativity and flexibility? The argument in favor of positive effects is a human capital-based argument, suggesting that highly qualified workers may contribute to organizations in unpredictable and unanticipated ways. In contrast, it is also plausible that if the vast majority of employees in an organization are feeling overqualified, this may result in a mass exodus from the organization, low morale, and feelings of being underutilized and underplaced. The only study speaking to this question to date is by Marchante and Ortega (2012), where they studied 1,427 workers in 70 hotels in Spain. Their analyses showed that the percentage of employees who reported having more education than job requirements was negatively related to hotel performance, as operationalized by per employee profitability. At the same time, having a high percentage of undereducated workers was worse for hotel performance compared to having a high percentage of overeducated workers.
Mediators of Overqualification
Why does perceived overqualification relate to attitudes and behaviors? A small number of studies tackled this question. Liu et al. (2015) examined the role of organization-based self-esteem and anger at one’s employment situation as potential mediators of overqualification–counterproductive work behaviors targeting supervisors and the organization. They found support for their model in a sample of Chinese research and development employees. Luksyte, Spitzmueller, and Maynard (2011) examined person–job fit, psychological contracts, and cynicism toward one’s job as mediators of the relation between perceived overqualification and self-rated counterproductive behaviors, finding support for only cynicism. What is interesting is that despite the prevalence of relative deprivation theory in explanations of the effects of overqualification, relative deprivation has rarely been incorporated into models of overqualification as a mediating mechanism (cf. Feldman et al., 2002).
Moderators of Overqualification
Researchers also turned their attention to delineating the boundary conditions of overqualification. Understanding when the effects of overqualification are stronger or weaker is useful to get a clearer sense of contexts and situations under which surplus qualifications affect employees and to possibly ensure that some of its negative effects are dealt with.
An important moderator of overqualification is the sense of empowerment employees experience at work. Erdogan and Bauer (2009) showed that the negative relationship between perceived overqualification and job satisfaction, and positive relations with turnover intentions and turnover, were contingent on the level of empowerment such that, overqualification had no relations with these outcomes when empowerment was high. Similarly, Wu et al. (2015) examined a related concept—job autonomy—in a sample obtained from nine European countries, and demonstrated that job autonomy alleviated the negative effects of felt overqualification on job attitudes.
A recent example explored how peers’ feelings of overqualification could interact with one’s own. Hu et al. (2015) made the argument that the relative deprivation resulting from felt overqualification would be less of a problem when peers are also highly overqualified. In this context, overqualified employees would still fit in with their group, and their feelings about the tasks at hand would be more favorable. Their study on information technology workers in China supported this prediction. In fact, felt overqualification had positive effects on perceived person–group fit and task significance in general, but these effects were much stronger when peer overqualification was high. The social context of overqualification seems to be important. In fact, Kler et al. (2015) used the Australian household panel to look at the effects of social context in a different manner: They showed that some of the negative effects of overeducation on job satisfaction and pay satisfaction disappeared after a financial crisis, suggesting that being in the company of others who are experiencing anxiety may have changed the frame of reference of individuals.
Not all employees react equally negatively to perceived overqualification. For example, personality traits and values may determine how much dissonance employees experience in reaction to feelings of overqualification, and how readily they take action as a result. Maynard and Parfyonova (2013) showed that perceived overqualification was positively related to job search behavior more strongly for those who had high needs for competence and growth. Liu et al. (2015) identified justice sensitivity as a moderator. Employee reactions to perceived overqualification in the form of organization-based self-esteem and anger at one’s employment situation were stronger for employees who reported higher levels of justice sensitivity. Interestingly, Lobene and Meade’s (2013) study on teachers in the United States revealed unexpected findings. The authors predicted that employees with a calling orientation, or those who see their jobs not as a paycheck or a step in their career ladder but a way to achieve higher purpose, were more negatively affected by perceptions of overqualification. In contrast to the expectation that having a calling orientation could act as a buffer, employees performed at a lower level when they approached their jobs as a calling and they reported high perceived overqualification.
Interpersonal relationships have also been identified as a possible buffer against the negative effects of perceived overqualification. Alfes, Shantz, and van Baalen (2016) showed in a study in the Netherlands that leader–member exchange (LMX) and team cohesiveness acted as moderators of perceived overqualification with respect to job satisfaction.
Future Research Directions
What Are the Group-Level Effects of Overqualification?
To date, studies of overqualification tended to focus on individual level outcomes of overqualification, in the form of job attitudes, turnover, and well-being. An unanswered question is how a combination of overqualified and well-matched employees influences group dynamics, teamwork, and team outcomes. Researchers proposed that individual- and group-level implications of overqualification may differ. For example, Sierra (2011) suggested that at the team level, the average overqualification level in a team may affect team cohesion and collaboration, if employees see overqualified employees as outsiders. Composition of overqualified employees within the group may stimulate social comparison dynamics, and employees working in groups with high versus low average overqualification may be affected by it differently.
How Do Recruiters React to Overqualified Applicants?
Few studies focused on recruiter reactions toward overqualified applicants and the conditions under which an employee is regarded as overqualified and excluded from the applicant pool. Bewley (1998) interviewed 300 hiring influencers during a U.S. recession. In these interviews, interviewees reported negative attitudes toward overqualified job candidates with the expectation that they would soon leave or threaten their supervisors. In a 35-person interview-based study, Bills (1992) found that employers tolerate a certain level of overqualification in the job applicants. There were essentially four reasons recruiters reported for shying away from overqualified applicants: They might not stay long enough to justify investing in them, they would leave sooner, they would be overpriced, and there would be mistrust in their motives. This study also identified a zone of tolerance for some overqualification. In other words, in the minds of recruiters, there was a certain ceiling of qualifications that would be acceptable before labeling an applicant overqualified for the job. Finally, Kulkarni, Lengnick-Hall, and Martinez (2015) report the results of 24 interviews, suggesting that common concerns include interpersonal and management issues and attitudinal problems these employees are expected to encounter.
Experimental work around how recruiters react to overqualified applicants would add value to the literature and is an area where there is a clear gap. Theoretical work on this topic exists (e.g., Martinez, Lengnick-Hall, & Kulkarni, 2014), but empirical research remains rare. Athey and Hautaluoma (1994) conducted an experiment with 61 hiring managers, manipulating education, job status, and job gender stereotype and showed that hiring managers tended to favor the more highly educated resumes. Similarly, Thompson, Sikora, Perrewé, and Ferris (2015) conducted an experimental study to show that recruiters have a preference for overqualified resumes. These findings are at odds with the real-life difficulties overqualified job applicants report, and suggest that the experimental studies may require a greater level of realism.
Understanding how recruiters react to overqualified applicants is a critically important topic, particularly in line with the fact that most research on overqualification utilized existing employees and not overqualified job applicants. For example, it is not technically accurate to assume that just because perceived overqualification is negatively related to job attitudes, an overqualified job candidate will necessarily be unhappy at work. This is because an overqualified job applicant may not always develop a sense of perceived overqualification once hired, and those who do not feel overqualified when they were first hired may end up developing this perception over time. As Fine and Nevo (2011) observed, we need objective measures of overqualification as observed by hiring managers, and we need studies of overqualification as part of the hiring process.
Overqualification literature suffers from measurement inconsistency. There is some convergence on Maynard et al.’s (2006) measure of perceived overqualification, which is a positive development. Much of the literature we reviewed utilizes different measures and oftentimes single-item, unvalidated measures have also been used. McKee-Ryan and Harvey (2011), in their review of underemployment literature, called for greater consistency of measurement, and we would like to underline the importance of measurement practices in arriving at a generalizable literature that offers stronger inferences to future scholars.
Expanding and Bridging Micro and Macro Levels of Investigation
A holistic overview of the overqualification literature reveals a relatively confusing picture due to the mixed and conflicting empirical results. Contradictory results exist in almost every aspect of overqualification studies, such as the effects of age as an antecedent, or the effects of overqualification on performance. These controversies might be resolved with multilevel research designs (Sierra, 2011), by including country-level economic characteristics (Erdogan, Bauer, Peiró, & Truxillo, 2011b) or organization-level conditions. For example, differences in the sense of collective deprivation among industries or countries might provide a justification to some of the conflicting findings (as for age) on individual antecedents or consequences of overqualification.
To conclude, overqualification is a theoretically and practically important construct and its systematic investigation is still in the beginning stages. Research to date indicates that the effects of overqualification on employees and organizations are likely to be contingent on the situation. This construct is still new in management and industrial/organizational psychology literatures and offers a better understanding of implications of misfit with one’s job relative to studies examining misfit while disregarding its direction and nature.
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