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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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.

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.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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