It's official: ageism is rife in the IT industry. The mere sight of grey hair can lead to a veto by recruitment firms, according to an exclusive Computerworld survey of IT professionals and industry groups.
Despite efforts by the government to retain older workers and a widening skills gap that has created critical shortages across segments of the IT industry, the survey found widespread cynicism by recruitment firms and employers towards workers over the age of 55.
The alarming results come at a time when state and federal governments are introducing initiatives to address the growing problem of Australia's ageing workforce.
IT managers over the age of 55 say recruiters are pigeon-holing them.
Considered "too old", their resumes are being selectively vetoed by recruiters who work to ensure the competitive landscape remains a "young person's game."
Director of RGH Consulting and immediate past president of the Australian Computer Society (ACS) Richard Hogg held a workshop earlier this year for those over 45 wishing to refresh their skills.
Hogg said the general consensus was that recruitment firms have the wrong idea when it comes to older workers.
He believes recruitment consultants need an education in both life and IT to open their eyes.
"They don't want graduates because they don't have enough business acumen. And yet a couple of times I talked to people about project management roles there was no acceptance of my skills and capabilities once they saw the grey hair; this has been bought out by a number of ACS members," Hogg said.
"I remember on one occasion the recruitment firm told me the group at which I was applying for a job were young and didn't wear suits and ties.
"Employers take a cynical view of those over the age of 55 and say this guy was probably put out to pasture on $150K and then think he will either ask for more money than is on offer or will take off to get a better offer."
Hogg said another problem is that employers only get to see the shortlists the recruiters put forward.
Max Rogalsky, managing director of ISP Access Net Australia, said recruiters are put off by those over 55.
"They are terrified of the range of skills they have to offer; when they learn your history they think you are overqualified," he said adding that the resume of an older worker can boast a vast range of experience.
"In the early 90s a heck of a recession hit Melbourne and I could not get work for three years; when I saw a personnel consultant they said I should just start up another business," Rogalsky said.
"I eventually found work, but while I was doing temporary work it was really funny lining up for an interview because they often thought I was there looking for a secretary."
He said specialist skills, self confidence and experience come only with maturity.
"If you have less than five years experience you cannot get a job in IT and if you have more than 15 years' experience you cannot get a job because those sourcing for the positions are scared you either don't know enough or know too much," Rogalsky said.
ACS slams retirement push by recruitment firms
Current Australian computer society president Edward Mandla said the issue for recruitment firms when hiring people over the age of 55 is the general impression in the workforce that if you have not retired by the age of 55 then you should consider doing so.
Mandla slammed the IT recruitment industry, adding that [interviewers] are not IT professionals and are rarely human resources professionals. "They think if you are still working over the age of 55 there is something wrong with you," Mandla said.
"Anyone who is over the age of 55 and unemployed cannot shut up when it comes to talking about recruiters."
The most common excuse recruiters use, he said, is that you are not a "cultural fit", which is code for too old.
"The average age of a recruiter is under 30 and a lot of these people do not know the difference between a SAP system and a PC," Mandla said.
"These kids do elementary word matching and have no ability in sorting out the fact that if you programmed a language for 20 years you would easily be able to retrain on a new language.
"Now, 48 percent of the hiring is done in end-user land and 52 percent in vendors; but the end-user landscape will be bad in 10 years, because they are trying to push out the people over the age of 55," he said.
In the end-user sector, it is often the older IT managers who are discriminating because "they want a dynamic young gun".
"On the vendor side there is less discrimination because IT is their core business and vendors seem to value highly skilled people a lot more," Mandla said.
Recruiters reject ageist claims
Legally, age should be no barrier to employment, particularly at a time when the government has introduced a number of programs to retain older workers.
As a result recruiters claim age is irrelevant.
Ambition recruitment IT director, Jane Bianchini said candidates are not required to reveal their age but added that organizations tend to favour a person "who can grow with the company."
Bianchini said those over 55 are generally more successful in a contracting market.
In most IT manager roles, she said, the focus is on energy, motivation and a willingness to adapt to change.
Responding to Computerworld's survey, Hays IT general manager Peter Noblet refuted the findings, claiming that no applicant is refused due to age. Candle ICT NSW general manager Peter Zonnevylle said the nature of a 'youthful culture' within an organization extends to those over 55.
"The biggest challenge for everyone, not just the over 55s is keeping skills up to date," Zonnevylle said.
The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR) states that the unemployment rate for people aged 45 and over stood at 2.9 per cent in June 2005, down from 3.4 per cent a year earlier and 6.2 per cent in March 1996.
However, while the unemployment rate for mature age people is well below that for those aged 15 to 44, mature workers often face significant difficulties finding subsequent work once they become unemployed, as illustrated by a much longer average duration of unemployment (80 weeks for mature age persons compared with 28 weeks for 15 44 year-olds).
But with the percentage of mature workers in the workforce set to increase, retention of these workers has become an important policy goal for the federal government.
DEWR administers a number of programs and policies which specifically target mature age workers, job seekers and employers.
Among these programs is the Mature Age Employment and Workplace Strategy, which was announced in the 2004-05 Budget, and will receive funding of $12.1 million over four years to address mature age employment issues.
Other programs include the Active Participation Model of Job Network, which gives workers over 50 access to training and other services in the hunt for a job, and the Welfare to Work Reform initiatives announced in the 2005/06 Budget.