Not yet slobbering

A recent Computerworld story (CW April 29, p1) about the possibility of mainframe skills joining the dinosaurs in extinction touched a nerve with reader, Steven Hughes (letter follows). Understandably so.

I can understand skills becoming obsolete as the associated technologies reach their sunset years. But too often the explanation of outdated skill sets undervalues experience and masks discriminatory attitudes towards older workers and their ability to keep up with the latest developments. Such discrimination is rarely explicit.

This is a big problem, at least according to reports from sources such as Age Limits, a study about age discrimination in employment for workers over 45, which the Victorian, South Australian and Western Australian Equal Opportunity Commissions sponsored. A year old now, this study found negative stereotypes about older workers contributed to high levels of age discrimination.

As Hughes puts it, "There is this widespread notion... that once you've turned 40, your brains have turned to mush, you start slobbering and can't get your head round new technology."

Reports (see HRMguide.net) noted that age discrimination can be disguised with code words such as 'too qualified'. Spurned workers quoted in the Age Limits study lament that "recruitment agents are going through the motions of recruitment according to an identikit picture of what employers want"; and "there is a perception that you are not likely to change, and that you are not open to new skills and you are not offered new skills".

Chief executive of the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) Dianne Sisely believes that negative attitudes about a person's working life come from an era where workers were often worn out from physical labour by the time they were 45 and were unlikely to live much beyond 60.

A stark contrast to all the negative views is represented on the Victorian EOC Web site (www.eoc.vic.gov.au). This site quotes research which claims that in a battery of five tests examining verbal ability, spatial reasoning, inductive reasoning, numeric ability and perceptual speed, peak ages for performance are "occurring in the 50s". Other research may make counter claims. The EOC also claimed that a World Health Organisation study showed that workers over 45 took fewer sick days, and that such workers would cost less, in terms of on-costs, than employees under 45.

What is the age range of your IT team? How would an applicant's age influence appointments to mid-level or even junior-level positions?david_beynon@idg.com.au. (Editor-in-chief)

Mindset means trash heap for over-40s Cobol-ersRegarding the article, Mainframe skills to join dinosaurs? (Computerworld, April 29, p1): what a load of rubbish!

There is this widespread notion, in the pathetic excuse of the all-but-gone Australian IT "industry", that once you've turned 40, your brains have turned to mush, you start slobbering and can't get your head round "new" technology. Australian IT managers will indeed be "clamouring" for mainframe skilled people, but will be insisting those same people be under 35 years of age, and then they'll cry "skills shortage" when all they can turn up is the over 40s. We'll then see further outsourcing to India (or Vietnam as I saw recently), or an influx of "skilled (read younger)" people from these countries, whilst people in my age bracket are overlooked.

I've actually seen job advertisements stating "minimum of four, maximum of eight years experience". Nearly two years ago, after a promising interview and sitting a Cobol test and getting "the highest mark they'd ever seen", a Sydney insurance company declined to employ me, deciding instead to import a programmer from overseas. Last year, I was refused another interview because my "Cobol wasn't current". I hadn't written it for just over 12 months, so after 18 years, I'd apparently forgotten it.

Fortunately, more enlightened countries in Europe can see the future is not only in Cobol, but in cross-system applications. I'd love to return to Australia, where I learnt my mainframe skills, but I apparently cannot develop three-tier applications or teach Australian graduates or trainees in Australia. "Agents" in Australia tell me I don't have "the skills" to do what I'm doing here (in a US-based financial services company), on the other side of the world. I'm still writing Cobol and PL/1, using DB2 and SQL on three platforms, and also Java and C#. How is this possible when I'm over 40??

Recruitment "agents", and I use the term very loosely, don't know what skills are, they just know how to match acronyms. HR departments in client companies are no better. We therefore have the situation of the "know what they want" talking to the "think they know what they mean", who ask the "think they know better", who tell the "know what they have" that they cannot do the job. Result "skills shortage", "brain drain" and "looming crisis" articles. And Australia loses.

It's rather telling that (Australian Computer Society chief executive officer Dennis) Furini talks about something called JESS III. Could he in fact be referring to JES3, the IBM job entry system, in which I have a number of years experience? "Skills shortage" will be the cry, cannot find anyone with JESS III experience, and the experienced JES3 people stay unemployed. DOS/VSE? I doubt there's any installation using that operating system now. Huron? Specialist area? More like something that sounded great in concept but was not so great in practice. I personally think it should've been stillborn.

The bloke who says it's a tight market for over 40s is spot on. The professor (Dr Matt Warren, associate professor, school of computing and mathematics, Deakin University) who states it is hard to learn mainframe skills should come over here and I'll help him learn, along with the dozen or so graduates who are picking it up quite well. Perhaps he might like to offer me a position at his university?

I'd like to think Australia might one day be a world leader in IT, but with the current mindset, and our Luddite Government, it won't happen in any Cobol programmer's lifetime.

Steven Hughes, US.

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