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Overqualification: recognizing capabilities beyond job success


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Sergio Clavero García

researcher from Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra

More and more Europeans have an advanced programs of study level. However, this positive development is not matched by a corresponding growth in the issue of skilled work positions. The result is that an increasing percentage of workers occupy a job that requires fewer qualifications than they have acquired in the process of training. This status affects certain social groups, such as young workers or women, among others, more markedly. Overall, it is estimated that more than 20% of European workers with post-secondary Education are overqualified for their current work . So, from the point of view of society, resources in the form of advanced training are being wasted, and from the point of view of individuals, their hard-earned skills are not being recognized as sufficiently valuable.

In considering this last aspect, the question arises as to what criteria determine the value of our work skills. In considering this question, two types of answer are offered. On the one hand, in the market these skills are in fact valued according to their usefulness and competitiveness: for example, knowing in detail the properties of different building materials is considered valuable (recognized in the form of work space in an architectural firm) to the extent that this knowledge serves to build houses that people want to (and can) buy, and according to the knowledge that the other potential candidates for the job have in this respect. In other words, from the market's point of view, having a deep knowledge on material resistance is not something meritorious or valuable in itself; factors as heterogeneous (and so out of the individual's control) as a technological revolution that modifies the modes of production, an economic crisis that makes the demand for houses fall substantially or a boom of architecture graduates make the same knowledge (the same capacity, the same qualification) worth more, less or even nothing.

This determination of the value of labor qualifications by the market contrasts with the assessment that the person who possesses them makes of them. Indeed, when valuing his or her skills (especially advanced ones), the worker does not only take into account their usefulness or competitiveness, but also the fact that their acquisition is the result of a long and costly process, in which he or she has had to invest a substantial amount of time, money and energy. In the specific case of overqualified workers, there is understandable frustration at not seeing so much effort and sacrifice sufficiently recognized. This feeling is accentuated by the fact that qualifications have been obtained largely through a socially regulated and promoted process: not only do the various social agents (governments, universities, civil society itself...) encourage us to acquire an advanced training , but in most cases they themselves are responsible for organizing and certify this process. Thus, we have Degrees and university masters with regulations that strictly fix the issue of credits to be passed, a Common European framework of reference letter for languages (that classifies the Degree of knowledge that one possesses of a language, from level A1 to C2), etc.

So we are faced with a system that encourages and regulates the acquisition of advanced skills, but then is not able to generate enough qualified work jobs for workers to be able to put them on internship and see them as valuable. Moreover, as the average level of Education of the citizenry increases (without increasing at the same rate the number of skilled work positions), the value of that same training decreases. A side effect of this phenomenon is that workers are pushed to accumulate ever more and higher qualifications in an effort to excel in order to obtain some of the skilled work jobs that do become available. In turn, this makes the requirements to obtain such positions increasingly higher, in a continuous spiral of increasing workers' qualifications and decreasing their relative value: where before it was enough to have a university Degree to obtain a certain work, now this is not so valuable (it is not a sufficient competitive advantage) and it may also be necessary to have a Master's Degree or speak a foreign language .

The solution to such a status is not simple. Certainly, measures such as a better distribution of resources or a reduction of the workshop labor can contribute to increasing the issue of available work jobs (either because consumption increases, or because more people are used to meet the same demands, etc.). However, it is not clear to what extent this subject of measures would truly allow us to attack the root of the problem, since ultimately written request remains the issue that competencies are considered as more or less meritorious and valuable depending on factors that are totally beyond our control. A more profound solution would require structural changes that would make it possible either to modify the principle of merit that currently operates in the market (separating it, at least partially, from instrumental and competitive considerations) or to seek ways of valuing workers' qualifications that are not linked to the idea of market success.