I'm walking in Post Office Square, in the beating heart of Boston's financial district. I see my luncheon guest. He's huddled against the door of the coffee shop.

We'll call him Ernest, and he is, indeed, earnest about finding a job. But everywhere he goes, hiring managers spend a few minutes with him, scan his resume and say, "Your experience is great. It really is. But the job we are working to fill is a bit junior for you. It's been great meeting you. We will give you a call next week." Needless to say, in Ernest's world, the phone does not ring next week. Or the week after.

Ernest has enough solid experience to be interviewing for a fairly senior job, one that back in the heady '90s would have paid a base exceeding $100,000 plus the usual bonuses. But after a decade of loyal service, he became part of his employer's "rightsizing" effort, only to find himself now too experienced for many of the job opportunities he's hearing about.

Ernest asked me, "Should I take a job two levels lower than the one I had? Will accepting a lower-level position now be seen as a step back, and impede my future career progression?"

As we order the luncheon special (this not being the frothy '90s), I reflect on Ernest's background. No flaws that I can see. But there is something about Ernest. He is 50 years old. When he cut his teeth on his first job, the hiring manager he saw last week was just finishing high school. If she hires Ernest, she could be hiring her own replacement. End of discussion.

So, I tell Ernest, if a more senior job isn't available, if you've done the mandatory soul-searching and you really don't mind stepping back a bit - take advantage of one of the few jobs that are open. Given some time to assimilate into the new organization and then showing them what you've got, you will likely find that you're building enough experience and expertise in your new career path to gain recognition and earn you a future promotion. Ernest will probably have to prove, all over again, that he is a team player. Only this time, it's on someone else's team. But given some time to shine, he will surely become the team's leading VIP, and eventually the top coach.

How to convince the hiring manager your ego can handle a step down? If the hiring manager's eyes are beginning to glaze over, and she's rising from her chair, don't hesitate to assure her you are more than eager to make a solid, measurable contribution to her organization. Explain that you are anxious to bring wisdom, integrity and experience to her staff, no matter what your functional title would be.

Be sure to point out your willingness to accept a job title that is a notch or two down from the one you held, noting that your feeling of accomplishment or achievement of the companys goals is more important to you than what's printed on your business card. Ernest, who has held jobs at a variety of levels, listened carefully and agreed that at this point in his career, he doesn't need to be the leader of the free world. If given a chance, he knows that he can help the company succeed.

A Breather

If you feel confident that your ego won't be too battered, and resentment definitely will not be an issue, then stepping down a rung or two on your personal career ladder isn't necessarily a bad move or even a career killer.

It doesn't mean you have failed. Just the opposite is true. You've succeeded

in landing a new job. You have been hired by a fresh company that recognizes your value and potential - and you'll be working for a manager who sees experience as an asset, not a threat.

Accepting the new job means you are flexible enough to chart a new career path, and confident about your abilities.

Furthermore, stepping back a bit will allow Ernest to see the bigger picture, and decide for himself if he still wishes to pursue his original path or pursue new opportunities. A job without the pressures he's used to would be a breather, Ernest says.

But to give yourself a chance at a different level, you need to tone down your resume. Both to shorten your career timeline and to show a prospective employer that you are in touch with today's problems, I would suggest focusing your resume on your recent experiences. Also, downplay any managerial piece of your history, deleting, for example, anything that sounds like, "Hired and motivated a staff of 26 young whippets and taught them everything I know, and that's a lot."

Charles A. O'Neill is a principal with MutualFundCareers.com, a Web site devoted to jobs in the mutual fund industry. He is also a principal with Diversified Management Resources, a marketing, consulting and executive recruitment firm in Boston. He can be reached at: coneill@mutualfundcareers.com

Copyright 2003 Thomson Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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