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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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).

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 people 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.

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 past 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 an understanding between older workers and hiring companies. Michael T. Abbene, who in 2009 retired as CIO from St. Louis-based Arch Coal, says "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 says he 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, says there is value in the maturity, experience and even keel that many older workers possess. If it's just not as high a value as employers would like, then, well, that's the state of the market circa 2011.

Frequent Computerworld contributor Tam Harbert is a Washington, D.C.-based writer specializing in technology, business and public policy. Additional reporting by Computerworld features editor Tracy Mayor. Additional research provided by editorial project manager Mari Keefe. Bureau of Labor Statistics chart by online managing editor Sharon Machlis.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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