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GRANDVIEW, Mo. – 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 here south of Kansas City.

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

After being hired in December, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 country as the aspirations of many workers have been recalibrated amid the recession, enabling some companies to reap unexpected rewards.

A result 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 labor 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. “They’re trying to really professionalize this company,” said Mr. 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.”

In some cases, of course, the new employees fail to work out, forcing the company through the process of hiring and training someone else. But Mr. 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. Several studies have put the figure at roughly one in five American workers, although some doubt the numbers are that high. Economists and sociologists, however, 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.

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