IT's age problem

Age bias: Some consider it IT's dirty little secret, or even IT's big open secret.

Most high-tech employers would likely deny that age discrimination is an issue at their companies. But many IT workers over 50 beg to differ, saying they have experienced age bias or know someone who has.

The bias can take several forms, they say. Their salaries might stagnate. They might have few or no opportunities for advancement. They might not be included in training and professional development programs. And they might be the first to be laid off and the last to be hired.

As a result, they may be hit harder by the recession. According to recent U.S. government data, unemployment rates for older IT professionals have increased more quickly than the rates for younger tech workers since the recession began some three years ago.

All of that can add up to a tough road for older people in high tech.

Age bias is "something that no [employer] talks about. But it's a reality in tech that if you're 45 years of age and still writing C code or Cobol code and making $150,000 a year, the likelihood is that you won't be employed very long," says Vivek Wadhwa, who currently holds academic positions at several universities, including UC Berkeley, Duke and Harvard.

As Wadhwa's observation indicates, "age bias" is a simplistic label for a complicated set of factors that influence the job prospects for senior tech employees. When considering workers over the age of 50, employers take the following factors into account:

The relevance, applicability and currency of their skills, which may or may not be up to par with those of younger employees.

The level of compensation they expect, which is typically higher than the salaries younger people seek.

Their behaviors and attitudes, which can become rigid and narrow-minded with age.

Their energy level, which is presumed to be lower than that of a 25-year-old.

While none of these generalizations is necessarily true for any particular candidate, each is a stereotypical assumption about older workers. What's more, they are all logical and legal reasons for an employer to fire, or not hire, someone.

Aging gracefully in IT

Dos and don'ts

You may not be able to turn back the clock, but there are a few things you can do to increase the likelihood of getting a job and staying employed as you age. Step 1 is recognizing that your skills have a certain shelf life. Rather than fight it, IT professionals should consider that when planning their careers.

In fact, Vivek Wadhwa believes that colleges should tell computer science and engineering students that "between age 40 and 45 you'll hit your peak, so plan for it." That could mean saving a substantial part of your salary when you're young, so you'll be able to earn less and still get by in IT as you age or use the savings as a cushion if you change careers, says Wadhwa, who started his career as a programmer and then went on to be an entrepreneur and later entered academia.

Here is a list of things you should and shouldn't do if you hope to stay in IT:

Do:

Keep your skills up to date, even if your employer doesn't pay for professional development.

Consider moving into IT management, where longevity and experience are more likely to be seen as positives rather than negatives.

Take advantage of a technical career path, if your company offers one. Some corporations have a dual-track system that allows technical folks to move up a ladder that's comparable to the one managers climb, says Paul Ingevaldson, who spent 40 years in IT and retired from his job as CIO of Ace Hardware in 2004.

Build and maintain a professional network independent of your current position so you have lots of contacts to tap if you are laid off or decide to start a consulting business.

Learn how to use social media to promote yourself, research potential employers and find current employees to refer you for jobs.

Dress like your co-workers. Dress codes vary widely from company to company and from job function to job function, but in general you should aim to dress like your colleagues. If they're wearing shirtsleeves, your Dr. Who T-shirt probably isn't appropriate.

Don't:

Act bored or tired either at your job or during an interview. That feeds into stereotypical assumptions about age.

Come off as a know-it-all. While decades of experience are valuable, employers are wary of narrow-mindedness in candidates who think they know exactly how things should be done. "You must be flexible to new ways of working and to a new culture," says Steve B. Watson, a managing director at executive recruiting firm Stanton Chase.

"If you can hire someone fresh out of college for $60,000 who is likely to know the latest technology, or you can hire someone 45 years old who's making $140,000, who are you going to hire? That's the harsh reality, whether we like it or not," says Wadhwa, 53, who started his career in IT as a programmer and then went on to be an entrepreneur before entering academia.

Robert Ayr hears that message loud and clear. At 57, he's fully and happily employed in IT as the manager of production services at Irving, Texas-based VHA Inc., a national network of not-for-profit healthcare organizations. He gives himself credit for managing his career well through turbulent times, but at the same time, he can't help but look over his shoulder.

By his own estimate, since graduating college in 1977, Ayr has held nine or 10 technology positions all over the country -- in California, Massachusetts, Texas and New York. "Especially in the beginning, I was moving all over the place -- to expand my knowledge base and to further my career," he says.

As he got older, he moved less and stayed in positions longer, but always took care to keep his skills fresh, moving from mainframes to VMS to his current specialty -- servers. "I say every 10 years it's time to retool," he explains. "I keep trying to learn as much as I can, otherwise you become a dinosaur."

Even so, Ayr acknowledges that the climate begins to change as the years of experience add up. He recalls when he was passed over for a job years ago in favor of a candidate who had nearly the same credentials as he did but was 20 years younger.

"I ran into the guy a couple months later at a users' group meeting, and I asked him right up front what kind of money they were paying him. The bottom line is, he was willing to work for less. That's what happens."

"I was always the youngest person wherever I went; now I'm one of the oldest," Ayr says. "You still picture yourself as the 30-year-old hotshot, but the reality is you're not that guy anymore."

Older workers by the numbers

What do we know about the aging workforce in the U.S., and about older tech workers in particular?

For starters, more older Americans are remaining in the overall workforce. Last year, the percentage of people aged 55 and older in the workforce reached 40%, its highest level in 35 years, according to a study published in February 2011 by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. And that's after the 2008-2009 recession, when many older workers lost their jobs.

But are older IT professionals remaining in the workforce? Solid numbers are difficult to find; the data that is available is sparse and sometimes inconsistent. Studies of older workers rarely break down results by profession. Recruiting firms offer data on hiring, and sometimes on salaries, by profession, but they typically don't break it down by age.

Other studies track unemployment, but not by age or profession -- so it's difficult to know how many older IT professionals want work but can't find it. The picture is further blurred when companies outsource and offshore IT jobs, or import workers through the H-1B and other visa programs -- potentially displacing U.S. workers, including older employees.

Add the fact that some IT professionals voluntarily bail out at a certain age, either to pursue new careers or to start their own businesses, and you can see why researchers find it difficult to quantify trends.

One set of data that does bring several of these factors together comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The agency released numbers in early 2011 that show that older IT workers have higher rates of unemployment than both younger IT workers and older workers in other professions.

In the category of "computer and mathematical occupations," the overall unemployment rate for people aged 55 and older jumped from 6% to 8.4% from 2009 to 2010, according to the data. For people 25 to 54 years old in that job category, the unemployment rate fell from 5.1% in 2009 to 4.5% in 2010.

Those figures are particularly striking when compared to the overall population, where 55-plus workers had lower unemployment rates (7%) than the 25-to-54-year-olds (8.5%) in 2010.

That trend seems to be reflected in the level of anxiety among older IT workers who still have jobs. According to Computerworld's 2011 Salary Survey, the number of IT people feeling somewhat or very insecure in their jobs rises steadily with age.

As to the flat-lining of wages that's rumored to sometimes happen in the second half of a high-tech career, Computerworld's survey didn't turn up evidence of age bias in actual salaries, but employees aged 55 and older were the most likely to report that they had generally "lost ground financially" in the past two years.

An academic study of IT salaries published in 2008 did show interesting disparities in compensation by age in three specific industry segments -- finance, IT and medical. Although the report is now out of date -- it was based on data from 2001 -- at least one of the original researchers believes its findings still hold true.

"The slow economic recovery and the stubborn high unemployment rate we have right now only make age discrimination even more pronounced," says Jing Quan, an associate professor at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Md. "IT companies are more likely to value IT workers who have the most updated skill sets and can get the job done," he says. "And those are more likely younger IT workers."

Keep up or keep out

The hyper-accelerated pace of change in high technology makes it a challenging field to keep up with. Quan puts it bluntly: "The special characteristics of the IT industry -- highly competitive, fast-paced, short skill update cycle -- do not favor older workers."

Julie McMullin, a professor at Canada's University of Western Ontario, elaborates. "Perceptions of 'older,' in this particular industry, have a lot to do with competing demands," says McMullin, who leads an international project called Workforce Aging in the New Economy (WANE) that studies aging and workforce restructuring in the IT industry.

"If you're an unencumbered worker" -- that is, single with lots of time to work extra hours and attend training to update your skills -- "then you're 'young,' " she says.

By those standards, Ronda Henning could pass for a spring chicken. In real-life years, she's 53, but by her own estimate, she has logged enough extra hours and obtained enough degrees to give younger workers a run for their money.

A senior scientist specializing in security at Harris Corp., a communications and IT company based in Melbourne, Fla., Henning has earned several graduate degrees to supplement her undergraduate degree (a B.A. in English and political science from the University of Pittsburgh). She holds an MBA from the Florida Institute of Technology and an M.S. in computer science from Johns Hopkins University, and she's currently working toward a Ph.D. in information systems.

Beyond that, Henning has taken care to invest in her career on her own time -- publishing and presenting papers at conferences and identifying and pursuing new business initiatives within her organization. "Often, that has to happen on your own time, in addition to your standard assignments," she warns.

And then there's the constant influx of the new, and the challenge of separating signal from noise. "I make a conscious effort to stay current, but these days, it's very hard to absorb everything and figure out what's truly important," Henning acknowledges. "It can become a 24-hour-a-day job to try and do that."

To be sure, IT isn't the only profession in which older workers are vulnerable if they haven't kept their skills up to date. Administrative assistants who don't know the latest office productivity software, or journalists who don't have multimedia skills, for example, are in the same boat.

In fact, as technology pervades more and more professions, the pressure to keep up with the pace of change is affecting a wider swath of the population, especially baby boomers who are reluctant, or unable, to retire.

"It's the same thing everywhere, except in IT it happens faster," says Wadhwa. "In IT, you're at the epicenter of the earthquake in technologies."

Hot jobs vs. no jobs

Certain types of IT jobs appear less susceptible to ageism than others. Systems architects and project managers, for example, are relatively safe, observers agree, as are IT employees with highly specialized skills such as scientific programming or mobile application development, provided those skills remain in demand.

And management can be a haven for aging IT folks who have people skills. Salisbury University researcher Quan's report showed that in management, if not elsewhere, older IT workers made higher salaries than the under-40 set.

These days, companies seem more willing to hire older IT executives than they were five to 10 years ago, says Steve B. Watson, a managing director at executive recruiting firm Stanton Chase. Companies "need someone who can hit the ground running," he says. "There's less interest in giving a honeymoon period to a newcomer, less time for training than there was in the past." In addition, he sees a talent gap in management, probably created by the fact that baby boomers are starting to retire.

Likewise, companies are willing to look at older workers who have the skills the organization needs. For example, Axcelis Technologies, a maker of semiconductor capital equipment, needs professionals with highly specific skills -- including physicists, experts in robotics and programmers with FORTH experience -- says Lynnette Fallon, executive vice president of human resources and legal at the Beverly, Mass.-based company. "Sometimes it's hard for us to find people who are good at this software," she says.

Fallon doesn't see any negatives to hiring older people. Because they are mature and experienced, they can mentor younger staffers, and mentoring is "the best kind of training," she says. Experienced professionals do cost more, she acknowledges, which means the company must weigh the cost of hiring veteran workers against the benefits they offer. "You obviously need a balance in the workforce," she says.

Too old to code?

In contrast, programmers who are over 40 can face a bleak future -- particularly if they didn't get on the management track or didn't keep their skills up to date. "In some IT departments, you could hang on until the company gets into trouble," says Wadhwa, "but when it does, you'll be the first to go."

When McMullin has interviewed people for the WANE project, some respondents have talked negatively about those "too old to code," she says. "People would be giving us these descriptions of ZZ Top-looking programmers sitting in the back corner working in Cobol."

The problem for programmers is twofold: For one thing, the desired skills keep changing, requiring them to refresh their talents on a nearly continuous basis. And, unlike managers, programmers often don't have a clear career path within an organization.

Dennis O'Connor is one programmer who, through a mix of hard work and lucky breaks, has managed to hang on in high tech without taking the management track. O'Connor is 72 and still working, most currently as a programmer and analyst for the Alexandria, Va., city government.

O'Connor started out at Blue Cross of Virginia in 1965 as a computer operator on a Honeywell 400 mainframe. He moved on to programming Cobol on a 360-30 mainframe, and spent some years in banking before moving into municipal government -- a sector that high-tech industry watchers consistently identify as being more accepting of older workers than its corporate counterparts.

He was hired by the city of Alexandria 11 years ago to service a Cobol-based payroll system, with the understanding that the system was scheduled to be phased out within a year and a half (but that has yet to happen, O'Connor points out with some amusement).

During a reorganization several years into his tenure that left O'Connor without a clear next step, a higher-up put him in a management position, but it wasn't to O'Connor's liking. "Supervision is not my thing. Over the course of my career, I have not been happy with it," he says. "Any time I could get out of it, I did. I do so much better as a programmer/analyst."

So he talked his way into a job on the Windows client-server side of the house, supporting the city's Tidemark Permit Plan system for people in various departments using SQL Server and Crystal Reports -- a job he now loves. "It was totally alien to me. I had to figure out what in the world I was doing," O'Connor recalls.

"I'm sure there was some apprehension on the part of my manager that I was being dumped on them, but as it turns out, he has been more or less pleased," he says.

Loyal no more

If high-tech watchers and older workers agree on anything, it's that the onus is squarely on IT employees to keep themselves current and capable. They shouldn't expect the industry to behave as if it owes them anything.

Traditional loyalty has disappeared on both sides over the past 30 years -- companies in general are no longer paternalistic, and workers don't think twice about jumping ship when they get a better offer. Still, there are some glimmers of hope for an understanding between older workers and hiring companies. Michael T. Abbene, who in 2009 retired as CIO from St. Louis-based Arch Coal, says "companies still have a responsibility to make training available and encourage people to update their skills."

And on the corporate side, there are operational reasons for companies to consider retaining their older workers. "There is a need for institutional memory, even in a fast-moving field," Abbene argues.

As a founder of two software companies, Wadhwa says he had no problem hiring older workers -- albeit at salaries that were 20% lower than they had made in previous positions. "For the price, they were a much better value," he says.

He recommends that approach to other employers. "It makes economic sense. They have more experience and they are more steady -- they won't leave you," he says.

Wadhwa, like many others, says there is value in the maturity, experience and even keel that many older workers possess. If it's just not as high a value as employers would like, then, well, that's the state of the market circa 2011.

Frequent Computerworld contributor Tam Harbert is a Washington, D.C.-based writer specializing in technology, business and public policy. Additional reporting by Computerworld features editor Tracy Mayor. Additional research provided by editorial project manager Mari Keefe. Bureau of Labor Statistics chart by online managing editor Sharon Machlis.

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More about: Axcelis Technologies, etwork, Honeywell, Inc., Technology, VHA
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