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Overqualified: An entry-level job beats having none

Stella Shaffer used to be news director and anchor at a commercial radio network in Iowa. Now she's answering phones at a call center for Medicaid recipients in Oregon.

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: One difference between this latest recession and past downturns is how hard it's hit professionals. The unemployment rate for college graduates has more than doubled since 2007. And with unemployment benefits running out, people are taking positions way below their education and experience level just to get back to work. As part of our series "Help Not Wanted," Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman introduces us to a highly-qualified candidate struggling with the search.


Stella Shaffer: Radio Iowa, I'm Stella Shaffer. A long battle between Ottumwa's mayor and city council will go down to the wire.

Mitchell Hartman: Stella Shaffer used to have, more or less, my job. Over a 30-year career she worked her way up from DJ to radio news anchor.

Shaffer: Aberdeen, Sioux Falls, Omaha, Des Moines.

Then, in her mid-50s, she remarried and moved to Oregon. It was 2007. The economy was tanking. She applied for media, PR, receptionist, waitress. After two years, she finally landed something -- and once again, you can hear her smooth radio voice:

Shaffer: Oop, there's a call. "Good morning, Oregon Health Plan Client Services, how can I help you today?"

If you happen to need help with your Medicaid benefits . . .

Shaffer: What's your client ID number?

In the state of Oregon.

Shaffer: They filled this prescription before at this pharmacy . . . Basically it's call center work, very low pay grade. I got hired, was one of only two people out of maybe 13 who interviewed. People congratulated me like I'd won the lottery.

You can see why. Finding a job is taking longer than ever in this economy. Meaning people like Shaffer, with impressive resumes and advanced degrees, are settling for entry-level jobs rather than no job at all.

Shaffer: It seems like all my life I was under-qualified-right up until the moment when I was overqualified. I've had people say, "Oh, you wouldn't want to work for what we're paying" or "You're beyond this job."

Kris Kersine hired Shaffer at the call center. She's getting plenty of similar applicants for state jobs.

Kris Kersine: They have a lot of degrees -- Ph.D.'s, and Master's and Bachelor's. Of course, families-to support their families, they'll take what they can get.

But will they stay once the economy gets better and new opportunities open up for highly qualified workers?

Shaffer: You know, at the time that I took this job I figured it was really temporary. And I'm surprised by how much I like the job. On the phone I like to talk to people. Tell them things, educate them, give them answers.

Whether she can keep the job is another question. Oregon is laying off state workers to fill a huge budget gap.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.
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I was a mid-career software programmer, age 44, when my company started layoffs in 2001. Rather than hang around waiting for the axe, I went to graduate school and earned a master's degree in my field. Then like Ms. Shaffer, I had to accept an entry-level job. For 2 years I worked at a very high level, way beyond what was expected, but was never promoted. I repeated this entry-level scenario at another company, another 2 years. Now I'm at my third company, which also forced me to start at entry level. I'll never gain a senior position, though every day I do comparable work, because I'm now 53 and they only promote young men (less experienced, less educated, and even with less seniority at this company). I encounter outright discrimination against women, but complaining only brings retaliation. My advice: WAIT for the good job, ENDURE unemployment, DON'T settle for entry level, or you will get stuck doing a senior level job for entry level pay, for the rest of your career.

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