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Age bias in IT: The reality behind the rumors

By Tam Harbert
September 1, 2011 06:00 AM ET

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 users 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. "Crystal Reports is a far cry from Cobol, but in the end, logic is logic."

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 last 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 understanding between older workers and hiring companies. Michael T. Abbene, who in 2009 retired as CIO from St. Louis-based Arch Coal, believes "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 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, believes there is value in the maturity, experience and even keel typical of many older workers. If it's just not as high a value as they'd like, well, that's the state of the market circa 2011.

Aging gracefully in IT

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 in IT as a programmer, then went on to be an entrepreneur before entering academia.

Here are lists 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 that you have lots of contacts to tap if you're laid off or you 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.

Be sure to also read Age bias in IT: Should you sue?

Frequent Computerworld contributor Tam Harbert is a Washington, D.C.-based writer specializing in technology, business and public policy.

Additional reporting by Computerworld contributing editor Tracy Mayor. Additional research provided by editorial project manager Mari Keefe. Bureau of Labor Statistics chart by online managing editor Sharon Machlis.

Read more about IT Careers in Computerworld's IT Careers Topic Center.



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