Don Carroll, a former financial analyst with a master's degree in business administration from a top university, was clearly overqualified for the job running the claims department for Cartwright International, a small, family-owned moving company in Grand View, south of Kansas City.

But he had been out of work for six months, and the department badly needed modernisation after several decades of benign neglect. It turned out to be a perfect match.

After being hired in December, Carroll, 31, quickly set about revamping the four-person department, which settles damage claims from moves, and creating tracking tools so the company could better understand its spending.

Conventional wisdom warns against hiring overqualified candidates like Carroll, who often find themselves chafing at their new roles. (The posting for his job had specified “bachelor's degree preferred but not required.”) But four months into his employment, it seems to be working out well for all involved.

It is a situation being repeated across the United States as the aspirations of many workers have been recalibrated amid the recession, enabling some companies to reap unexpected rewards.

“They're trying to really professionalise this company,” said Carroll, who is the sole breadwinner for his family of four and had lost his home to foreclosure. “I've been able to play a big role in that.” The result of the shift is a new cadre of underemployed workers dotting American companies, occupying slots several rungs below where they are accustomed to working.

These are not the more drastic examples of former professionals toiling away at “survival jobs” at Home Depot or Starbucks. They are the former chief financial officer working as comptroller, the onetime marketing director who is back to being an analyst, the former manager who is once again an “individual contributor.”

The phenomenon was probably inevitable in a labour market in which job seekers outnumber openings five to one. Employers are seizing the opportunity to stock up on discounted talent, despite the obvious risks that the new hires will become dissatisfied and leave.

In some cases, of course, the new employees fail to work out, forcing the company through the process of hiring and training someone anew. But Carroll is just one of several recent hires at Cartwright who would be considered overqualified, including a billing clerk who is a certified public accountant and a human resources director who once oversaw that domain for 5,000 employees but is now dealing with just 65.

They represent marked upgrades for Cartwright, a modest-size business with expanding ambitions. The company is benefiting from an influx of talent it probably never would have been able to attract in a better economic climate.

“There's a nice free-agent market right now,” said Randy Woehl, the human resources director. “The best it's ever been.”

Exact numbers for workers toiling in positions where their experience or education exceed their job descriptions are hard to come by, in part because the concept is difficult to measure and can be quite subjective. But economists and sociologists agree that the frequency inevitably increases in hard times.

Nevertheless, an overriding complaint among many job seekers, particularly professionals, is how often they are rejected for lower-level positions that they desperately want and believe they could practically do in their sleep.

Academic research on the subject confirms that workers who perceive themselves as overqualified do, in fact, report lower job satisfaction and higher rates of turnover. But the studies also indicate that those workers tend to perform better. Moreover, there is evidence that many of the negatives that come with overqualified hires can be mitigated if they are given autonomy and made to feel valued and respected. The new variable in all of this is the continuing grim economic climate. Many workers' ambitions have evolved, after all, from climbing the ladder to simply holding on to a job, any job. Turnover would also seem to be less of a concern amid predictions that it could be years before unemployment returns to pre-recession levels.

Jackie Swanson, 44, accepted a part-time job in May as a facilities manager at Conservation Services Group, a Massachusetts company that delivers energy-efficiency programmes and training across the country. She had been laid off after 16 years at another company, where she had handled more than 50 offices as a corporate facilities planner.

In her previous position, she had been more of a project manager, whereas the new job was mostly about the upkeep of the headquarters building. Swanson managed to convince the company's recruiter that she was excited about the organisation and that her priorities for a job had changed.

“I was willing to take a drastic cut in pay just to have stability,” she said.

Since then, Swanson has been promoted to full time. Even though her job still represents a step down in responsibilities, she has no plans to leave anytime soon. “I'm happy here,” she said. “I actually feel respected.”

At Cartwright, Carroll said he had so far found enough to keep him engaged because he had mostly been given free rein in the department. He has also volunteered to help the company's finance and accounting managers with anything they might need. Whenever he gets a request from someone higher up the ladder, he consciously tries to overdeliver.

Nevertheless, there are signs of angst. He is being paid a third less than he used to make. He and his wife realise that many of their financial goals could be set back years by this period. He is still paying attention to what is happening in the job market but is not actively looking.

Carroll's cubicle-mate, Mindy William, a former graphic designer and single mother who had been working at Target before she was recently hired as a claims adjuster, said she had noticed that he seemed to talk about his old job a lot.

“I know it's been an adjustment for him,” she said. “He's just making the best of it like the rest of us are. We're glad to have jobs in this recession.”For his part, Carroll admitted that he had caught himself often trying to drop his credentials into conversations at his new workplace.

“Obviously that stems from maybe some embarrassment at the level that I'm at,” he said. “I do want people to know that, to some extent, this isn't who I am.” It helps somewhat that most of his former business school classmates are hardly becoming masters of the universe. “It's not like anyone else is tearing it up,” he said.

While he is happy for now, Carroll worries about what will happen once he has finished the more interesting work of overhauling the department. He wonders how long simply having a job will be enough. — © 2010 New York Times News Service

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