The figures are sure to unsettle business owners and job applicants in equal measure, but according to a recent report from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), the number of overqualified workers in the UK economy has increased by almost a third since 2006 – and currently stands at 5.1 million.

IPPR associate director for work and the welfare state, Clare McNeil, stated: “There are now more people in the UK who are overeducated for their jobs than undereducated. While rising qualification levels are good news, this reflects poorly on UK employers who are not making use of their employees’ skills.”

In the weeks since the IPPR’s findings emerged, the issue of over-qualification has taken centre stage in an article at Fast Company. The piece notes that leaders face some uncomfortable quandaries when assessing candidates they consider to be overqualified:

  • What if the applicant gets restless within six months and wants to leave?
  • How could the money satisfy them?
  • How well will they take direction from someone with less experience?

With those questions in mind, how should leaders imaginatively handle staff that they know are overqualified, so those individuals remain active and engaged? And how should hiring managers treat applicants who they suspect to be overqualified for vacant roles? After all, they have signalled their interest by applying – and may have hugely beneficial talents.

The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James says: “We mostly hear about over-qualification with regards to graduates who leave university, only to find that they’re unable to get graduate jobs. There are two things here: we could say, as some do, ‘We shouldn’t make so many qualified people – so we’ll limit people’s ability to get qualified, and only produce levels of qualification necessary for the available jobs.’ Or, and this is much more positive – and a greater challenge to UK Plc – ‘We’ll create knowledge jobs that require, and will absorb, the skills and qualifications that people have.’”

James adds: “The important point to remember here is that if someone who approaches your organisation appears to be overqualified – well, they’ve applied for the relevant position. They know their own level of qualification. They will also know about what the job they’ve applied for entails, from the ad and any additional research they’ve undertaken. As a leader or manager, you’re lucky. Perhaps you won’t need to invest as much time in training this person, because they will either learn more quickly than most inductees, or come pre-equipped with valuable skills. And of course, as a leader, you should provide an environment for the job to grow with that individual.

“So let’s not be fearful of over-qualification. Let’s think about how we, as leaders, could best use it to our advantage.”

For further thoughts on a range of talent-development issues, check out these learning resources from the Institute