Monday, August 10, 2009

The Curse of Overqualification

I may be writing from Maine, but I am keeping my San Francisco Chronicle RSS feeds active. Thus, being on Eastern Time, I got the jump on this morning's piece about the job crisis by Jill Tucker. Her basic point concerns an aspect of the unemployment crisis that seems to have received little attention in Washington:
When Robert Stovall applied for a job Sunday, he hid something from his past.

It wasn't an arrest, a firing or an outstanding warrant. It was a doctorate in public administration.

He really wanted the job at Kohl's department store.

Out of work more than a year, and with hundreds of resumes unanswered, the 58-year-old in the pale blue suit and thin black tie was among the more than 1,000 people expected to apply this week in a Burlingame hotel conference room for the 150 or so jobs at the chain's new department store opening soon in Millbrae.

And he didn't want to appear overqualified.

After a long career working in the nonprofit world of youth and foster care and with a master's degree in counseling (still on his resume), he gave himself long odds for a Kohl's job, resigned to paying his mortgage with a home equity line of credit instead of a paycheck.

So just what qualifications are at stake for this particular job? The official line from Kohl's is that they are not asking for very much:
"If you can smile and say hello, we can teach you all the other facets of working in a Kohl's store," said district manager Jason Bittner. "But we can't teach you how to smile and how to want to help customers."
Presumably, then, counseling would be an asset, while the general attitude of reflective inquiry associated with a doctorate would be a liability. My guess is that the liability has less to do with whether or not Stovall can engage with others helpfully and more to do with the risk that he might ask too many questions during his training. In other words Kohl's, along with just about every retail outlet like them, now operates under a training regimen that basically deskills the nature of customer relationships. As a corollary, a business process that takes the skill out of engaging with the customer also takes the humanity out of the customer. Thus, where once "any successful salesman could tell you the quickest path to failure was to treat the customer as an object, rather than a subject," the "objectification of the subject," now taken for granted in the Customer Relationship Management world of telemarketing and the Internet, has become business-as-usual in the world of face-to-face retailing. From that point of view, Kohl's is probably right in assuming that Stovall is overqualified to engage with customers the way they want him to; and that does not bode well for those of us who are likely to be retail customers at any establishment that follows the same model that Kohl's does.

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