IT's age problem

Are older workers facing tough times in high tech? Or are they simply not pulling their weight in an industry that never stops innovating?

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"If you can hire someone fresh out of college for $60,000 who is likely to know the latest technology, or you can hire someone 45 years old who's making $140,000, who are you going to hire? That's the harsh reality, whether we like it or not," says Wadhwa, 53, who started his career in IT as a programmer and then went on to be an entrepreneur before entering academia.

Robert Ayr hears that message loud and clear. At 57, he's fully and happily employed in IT as the manager of production services at Irving, Texas-based VHA Inc., a national network of not-for-profit healthcare organizations. He gives himself credit for managing his career well through turbulent times, but at the same time, he can't help but look over his shoulder.

By his own estimate, since graduating college in 1977, Ayr has held nine or 10 technology positions all over the country -- in California, Massachusetts, Texas and New York. "Especially in the beginning, I was moving all over the place -- to expand my knowledge base and to further my career," he says.

As he got older, he moved less and stayed in positions longer, but always took care to keep his skills fresh, moving from mainframes to VMS to his current specialty -- servers. "I say every 10 years it's time to retool," he explains. "I keep trying to learn as much as I can, otherwise you become a dinosaur."

Even so, Ayr acknowledges that the climate begins to change as the years of experience add up. He recalls when he was passed over for a job years ago in favor of a candidate who had nearly the same credentials as he did but was 20 years younger.

"I ran into the guy a couple months later at a users' group meeting, and I asked him right up front what kind of money they were paying him. The bottom line is, he was willing to work for less. That's what happens."

"I was always the youngest person wherever I went; now I'm one of the oldest," Ayr says. "You still picture yourself as the 30-year-old hotshot, but the reality is you're not that guy anymore."

Older workers by the numbers

What do we know about the aging workforce in the U.S., and about older tech workers in particular?

For starters, more older Americans are remaining in the overall workforce. Last year, the percentage of people aged 55 and older in the workforce reached 40%, its highest level in 35 years, according to a study published in February 2011 by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. And that's after the 2008-2009 recession, when many older workers lost their jobs.

But are older IT professionals remaining in the workforce? Solid numbers are difficult to find; the data that is available is sparse and sometimes inconsistent. Studies of older workers rarely break down results by profession. Recruiting firms offer data on hiring, and sometimes on salaries, by profession, but they typically don't break it down by age.

Other studies track unemployment, but not by age or profession -- so it's difficult to know how many older IT professionals want work but can't find it. The picture is further blurred when companies outsource and offshore IT jobs, or import workers through the H-1B and other visa programs -- potentially displacing U.S. workers, including older employees.

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