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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And management can be a haven for aging IT folks who have people skills. Salisbury University researcher Quan's report 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 have the 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 FORTH experience -- 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 until 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 negatively about those "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 problem for programmers is twofold: For one thing, the desired skills keep changing, 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 mix 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 and analyst for the Alexandria, Va., city government.

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