Age bias in IT: The reality behind the rumors

Is high tech really that tough on older workers? Or are they simply not pulling their weight in an industry that never stops innovating?

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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 safe haven for aging IT folks who have people skills. Quan's research 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 come ready-made with 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 expertise in FORTH -- 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 till 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 in negative terms about those who were "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 difficulty for programmers is twofold: For one thing, the desired skills keep changing and changing again, 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 combination 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/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).

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