Downturn Hits Older Tech Workers Hardest

IT pros who are over 55, especially women, face long-term joblessness. Cloud and healthcare expertise are pluses these days.

Unemployment rates for older IT professionals have increased faster than they did for younger tech workers since the recession hit some three years ago, according to new U.S. government data.

The numbers confirm what 30-year IT veteran Maribeth McIntyre had already suspected.

Until McIntyre lost a job in 2007 at age 55, finding IT work had "always been as easy as can be," she said. When she became unemployed, she quickly started looking for another job as a business system analyst and project manager.

The recession hadn't hit yet, and McIntyre initially had numerous interviews that seemed promising. Nonetheless, it took eight months to land a consulting job. "I was beginning to suspect it was an age problem," she said.

The recession ended McIntyre's consulting job. She found short-term contract work in 2009 and then landed a six-month assignment that recently ended.

The latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that overall unemployment in "computer and mathematical occupations" jumped from 6% to 8.4% between 2009 and 2010. For women 55 and older pursuing those jobs, the unemployment rate hit 9.4% in 2010, 1.6 percentage points higher than the rate for men in the same age group.

At the same time, the unemployment rate for computer and math workers ages 25 to 54 dropped from 5.1% in 2009 to 4.5% in 2010. (See chart at http://bit.ly/eBwWJ3.)

Four years ago, before the economic downturn, the jobless rate for computer and math professionals was 3.5% for men 55 and over and 4.2% for women in that age group. The overall rate for people between the ages of 25 and 54 was just 1.7%.

Nanci Schimizzi, president of the mentoring and advocacy group Women in Technology, said jobless women 50 or older generally "remain unemployed for years, to the point where many have more or less given up" or changed careers.

Schimizzi doesn't expect much improvement in full-time job prospects for older IT workers even as the economy starts to grow. "I think full-time positions are going to be staffed from the younger workforce," she said.

Al Williams, a director of IT at Pennsylvania State University and vice president of independent IBM user group Share, said workers over 50 may concern corporate hiring managers because they might resist change and generally command higher salaries than younger people. "I think the biggest risk in IT is we tend to define ourselves with the technology we like, rather than aligning ourselves with the strategies the business needs," said Williams.

Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of the Computing Technology Industry Association, said that older workers with specific skills, mostly in cloud computing and electronic health systems, are still in demand.

The age issue is likely to gain importance because of the sheer size of the baby boom generation -- people born between 1946 and 1964, who make up more than 25% of the U.S. population. A 2010 federal government study found that 60% of the IT workforce in 2008 was made up of people between 45 and 63 years of age.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

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