Job hunting in a recession: does it pay to undersell yourself?

As jobs and opportunities dry up in a recession, jobseekers may be tempted to dumb down their resumes so they won't frighten a potential employer with overqualifications. But be careful what you don't wish for...
Can't find work using your PhD in genetically modified food? Try trimming your resume for something in fresh produce.
No two job hunts are the same, but when you hear the story of Albert’s long search for work and his subsequent settling for a job far below his capabilities, it’s easy to, uh, relate.

Unable to find a teaching job after graduating, Albert banged around Europe for more than a year looking for employment. Finally, a friend’s father introduced him to a government bureaucrat with a position to fill.

After a long interview, he was hired as a technical assistant Level III at the Swiss federal patent office.

Albert Einstein likely didn’t boast to his interviewer about his recent publication in the prestigious publication Annalen der Physik or mention his new musings on special relativity.

Einstein likely followed a time-tested strategy: dumbing down the resume.

"You see it in tighter economies when there isn’t the same level of opportunity," said Alan Kearns, the founder of CareerJoy, a Toronto-based company that says it helps people achieve career success, often by helping jobseekers build better resumes.

"A lot of times, I see it when people are changing sectors or they need cash flow. But at least they’re staying in the game."

In lean years, there are typically more staff jobs than management positions available, and people recently laid off or just entering the workforce may be forced to trim their sails. 

Usually, people are unwilling to undersell themselves, and even a casual glance at the internet job sites, such as Yahoo’s small business answer page, reveals a world of pain.

'When you say dumbing down, it’s actually telling the story that’s relevant to the opportunity.'— Alan Kearns,CareerJoy

"I have been applying for jobs for MONTHS and haven't been able to get anything," posts one frustrated jobseeker.

"I keep hearing that I'm overqualified. I've already dumbed down my resume, but I can't just remove that I went to university, because then I will have a four-year gap of nothingness .… I can't even get a job at a grocery store, because I live in a small town, and the jobs are taken by high school students or people who have no education. I really don’t know what to do."

Statistics Canada investigated the problem of overqualified, university-educated workers in a 2006 report and found it was growing.

An estimated 331,100 workers viewed themselves as overqualified in 2001, up from 251,600 in 1993, an increase of nearly one-third. Statistics Canada found overqualified people were most likely to work in the retail/wholesale sector.

The more time people had spent in university, the less likely they were to be in jobs for which they were overqualified. Unionized workers, those working on a full-time basis and people who had studied sciences and health in school were also less likely to be overqualified.

I Feel Overqualified1993 2001
Male 13.3% 17.1%
Female 22.1% 20.8%
Total polled 251,575 331,074

Source: Statistics Canada, 2006

Not surprisingly, it found people under the age of 30 were mostly likely to be affected, with 48 per cent reporting overqualification at some point in their careers.  But Statistics Canada also found that once older workers found themselves overqualified for a position, they had higher chance of remaining overqualified for the rest of their working life.

"I think there is some good value in dumbing down resumes when looking for work. When you say dumbing down, it’s actually telling the story that’s relevant to the opportunity," said Kearns.

Still, employers can have issues with hiring someone who is overqualified.  A bored employee may underperform or get fed up and leave.

"The bottom line with the whole job search is that you don’t get yourself into a situation where your employer is going to be disappointed with you. That, to me, is the key," said Kearns.

"If you’re chasing opportunities below your potential, you have to go into it with the right mindset. It’s your decision to take a position below your abilities. You can’t be resentful that they don’t see all [your] potential. You have to be careful of your expectations."

'We spend more of our waking hours at work than at home, so we should be doing more that pertains to our passion in order to be fulfilled.'—Jean Zacher,

Jean Zacher is the owner of, a Toronto-area website that lets jobseekers post resumes and employers post vacancies.

She doesn’t see a real problem with dumbing down a resume, as long as the jobseeker knows exactly what they’re trying to accomplish.

"I don’t see anything wrong with leaving out information," said Zacher. "If you’re applying for a job that you’re overqualified for, you still should put down what you’ve done. You don’t necessarily put down the whole story. You need to explain why do you want this job, this specific job."

Still, she wonders if it’s really a winning strategy. 

"We spend more of our waking hours at work than at home, so we should be doing more that pertains to our passion in order to be fulfilled," said Zacher.

"I understand we need dollars, and many of us have had to do things we don’t want to do, but maybe you should be looking at the employment agencies and taking temporary placements until you can find what you really want."

Kearns concedes there may be a level of deception in dumbing down a resume, but leaving stuff out is a far different matter than putting stuff in.

Mileva and Albert: relatively overqualified ((Christie's New York/Associated Press))
"It’s totally not the same as padding a resume. Padding a resume means employers are bringing you in and expecting you to have certain skill set," he said. " Dumbing down is just positioning yourself at a layer below your potential. The employer is actually going to get more value."

His Swiss employers liked Einstein and were apparently sorry to see him leave in 1909 to become Professor Extraordinary in theoretical physics at the University of Zurich.

By that time, the patent office had promoted him from technical assistant Level III to technical assistant Level II.

Wonder where he slipped that in on his resume.