Working for $10 an hour as a Starbucks barista is not exactly where Teresa Fritschi, 48, pictured herself at this stage of her career. Especially not after working as an award-winning communications specialist and earning more than $300,000 per year.
After being unemployed for almost three years before taking on the position at Starbucks as a fallback, Fritschi says that although her lifestyle has changed dramatically, she feels blessed to have a job at all.
“It has been a lifesaver,” she says. “Of course I am continuing to look for work more in line with my experience and expertise, but living in an attitude of grace and gratitude for this job has helped me overcome any lacking I might feel.”
Diane C.** lost her job as a corporate controller in September 2008. After two months of unemployment, she took a part-time job driving a limousine to help make ends meet, though she says she can’t count on it as regular income. Diane, 43, has eliminated all nonessentials like cable and home phone service, joined budget plans with utility companies and put her two children in state health care. While she enjoys meeting interesting people along the way, she still feels frustrated working a job that’s a step down from her qualifications.
“[There’s a] feeling of inferiority because I am seen as only a driver or chauffeur when in reality, I am an educated individual,” Diane says. “When clients ask if this is my only job or what else I do, I can tell them my area of expertise and most of the time they continue the conversations in a more educated manner and ask financial or business opinions.”
Fritschi and Diane are just two of millions of successful, educated people who’ve found themselves affected by the economy. With the unemployment rate in March at 8.5 percent and 5.1 million jobs lost since the recession began in 2007,* many people are taking “bridge jobs,” or jobs for which they are overqualified, just to stay employed.
Rachel P.,** for example, worked in Web content production for a public-service media company when the company instituted a wage and hiring freeze in July 2008. She was told her position might be eliminated in August, so she began job searching and accepted the first position that came along to avoid a gap in employment.
The job, as an administrative assistant for a university department, pays several thousand less than her previous job and requires only a high school diploma. The bachelor’s and master’s degrees Rachel earned were irrelevant, even a hindrance, in the interview process.
“I was told that I was overqualified during both of my interviews for my current position,” she says. “Although feedback from my managers has been positive, I do not feel proud of my work here. I thrive on innovation and mastering new material, core strengths that are not utilized in my current role. I’m mindful of the fact that I am not adding to my portfolio or skill list and I struggle with how to compensate for this.”
Rachel’s feelings are one of the major problems with “applying down” for a position, according to Duncan Mathison, contributor to “Rebound: A Proven Plan for Starting Over After Job Loss” (FT Press). Just because you apply for a job that’s lower on the organizational chart or requires fewer credentials doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to get it, he says.
Problem is, when you find you didn’t get that job either, your thoughts may turn to self-destructive conclusions about yourself.
“[A thought like,] ‘I must really be a loser if I can’t get a lower-level job,’ is really a job search energy killer,” Mathison says. “Depending on your career track, [applying down] can also really set you back significantly in lifetime earnings and career progression. The assumption, right or wrong, is that you will be unmotivated, unhappy and leave in a heartbeat if you get a better position. They also assume you won’t like the pay.”
Joe Covelle, 47, faced opposition concerning his education when he began looking for work after he left a financial position due to health issues. Aside from 20 years experience, he completed undergraduate work and also earned a master’s in management. Now working full time at Home Depot and starting his own career-development business, Covelle says he had to take the master’s level information off his résumé so as not to look too educated or experienced during his job search.
“Home Depot [is] getting an exceptionally educated person with advanced emotional intelligence and people skills for a pay level of an entry-level person,” he says.
The upside to applying down
There are many people out there working jobs for which they’re overqualified, but not all of them are unhappy with what they’re doing. In fact, in many cases it’s just the opposite.
“People are taking on bridge jobs because they need work and surprise, surprise — some of these jobs are actually fun,” says Beth Ross, a career coach. “The fulfillment comes from the enjoyment, sometimes the lack of competition around the job, [and] the thrill of trying something new.”
Mitch Drew recently took a position as an advertising sales representative at a Canadian TV station where he was formerly a sales manager. While it’s a step down from his old position at the company, the 46-year-old is content at the moment.
“I am extremely tired of looking for work and want to take a break from interviewing. The rejection is hard to take,” he says. “I have more time, less stress and going through the exercise of having less income has had its upside.”
When Joy S.,** 33, was let go from her job as the director of a pro-bono legal services program for a social service provider, she took on a nanny position. She found that working with children was a breath of fresh air compared with her lawyer lifestyle.
“Lawyers take themselves pretty seriously and kids are a great antidote for that,” Joy says. “As a lawyer, I worked like a lion to protect my clients and I always have, but I dealt with profound misery on a regular basis. I found my time with the kids to be healing in a way. I enjoyed their wide-eyed wisdom.”
Despite pay disparities, responsibility adjustments and a few frustrations, those who have taken on a fallback position must take it seriously, Ross says.
“Learn, grow and don’t burn any of the bridges in the job itself. Lifetime learning is essential today,” she reminds. “Stay open to the possibility of developing and expanding a brand-new career. Take this opportunity seriously, for you never know where it is going to go.”
*According to the most recent unemployment numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 3, 2009.
**Names have been changed to protect current occupation
Rachel Zupek is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.