Empirical findings show that firms frequently employ overeducated workers. Since overeducated workers earn more than adequately educated ones working in similar jobs these findings seem to be puzzling. In this paper, we introduce an insurance approach to explain the employment of overeducated workers. Referring to this approach, overeducated workers are employed by a firm to avoid high losses in the case of a crisis (e.g. when the production process breaks down). Contrary to adequately educated workers, overeducated ones may be helpful in this situation by quickly offering improvisatorial solutions. First, we use a simple model to demonstrate the insurance argument. Second, we test the major implication of the model empirically by using industry panel data: if and only if high‐skilled workers are employed for insurance purposes, the average wage of high‐skilled workers in firms that need insurance will be lower compared with firms that do not need insurance. The data confirm this theoretical result. Copyright Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini and Blackwell Publishers Ltd 2002.