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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Julie McMullin, a professor at Canada's University of Western Ontario, elaborates. "Perceptions of 'older,' in this particular industry, have a lot to do with competing demands," says McMullin, who leads an international project called Workforce Aging in the New Economy (WANE) that studies aging and workforce restructuring in the IT industry.

"If you're an unencumbered worker" -- that is, single with lots of time to work extra hours and attend training to update your skills -- "then you're 'young,' " she says.

By those standards, Ronda Henning could pass for a spring chicken. In real-life years, she's 53, but by her own estimate, she has logged enough extra hours and obtained enough degrees to give younger workers a run for their money.

A senior scientist specializing in security at Harris Corp., a communications and IT company based in Melbourne, Fla., Henning has earned several graduate degrees to supplement her undergraduate degree (a B.A. in English and political science from the University of Pittsburgh). She holds an MBA from the Florida Institute of Technology and an M.S. in computer science from Johns Hopkins University, and she's currently working toward a Ph.D. in information systems.

Beyond that, Henning has taken care to invest in her career on her own time -- publishing and presenting papers at conferences and identifying and pursuing new business initiatives within her organization. "Often, that has to happen on your own time, in addition to your standard assignments," she warns.

And then there's the constant influx of the new, and the challenge of separating signal from noise. "I make a conscious effort to stay current, but these days, it's very hard to absorb everything and figure out what's truly important," Henning acknowledges. "It can become a 24-hour-a-day job to try and do that."

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.

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