Recession hit older tech workers harder, labor data shows

Unemployment rates for older IT workers increased during the recession faster than they did for younger employees, according to new U.S. government labor data obtained by Computerworld. But that's something that Maribeth McIntyre, an IT professional with some 30 years of experience, already suspected.

McIntyre was laid off from her job of seven years in early 2007 at age 55. Until that layoff, finding a job had "always been as easy it can be," so she hit the then still-growing pre-recession IT job market to look for a new job in her area of expertise: as a business system analyst and project manager specializing in HR and payroll applications.

In 2007, McIntyre said she had two or three phone interviews a week and many in-person interviews that were often enthusiastic and seemingly successful. But it was eight months before she landed a consulting job. "I was beginning to suspect it was an age problem," she said.

What is certain is that unemployment for people 55 years and older has become a problem, especially during the past two years. In the U.S. government's "computer and mathematical occupations" category, the overall unemployment rate jumped from 6% to 8.4% from 2009 to 2010, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For women 55 and older, the unemployment rate hit 9.4%. For men in that age group, it was 8%.

Meanwhile, unemployment declined for workers in that category who were between 25 and 54, dropping from 5.1% in 2009 to 4.5% in 2010.

The recession ended McIntyre's consulting job, so she found contract work for a few months in 2009 and last year landed a six-month contract gig that recently ended.

McIntyre, who keeps an online journal on the Daily Kos Web site (under the name Embee), had noticed other older workers talking about the problem of finding work. Seeing a trend, she started an online forum called the "50+ and Unemployed (Underemployed) Support Group" this month and got lots of positive feedback about the endeavor.

McIntyre said the forum is for sharing ideas and venting, because "after a while, your friends don't want to hear it anymore," she said with a laugh.

Although the labor data confirmed what McIntyre believed to be the case about the labor market, it didn't stop her from calling the unemployment numbers for older workers "scary."

Rates are percentage of total workers in each category. Data comes from the federal Current Population Survey of about 50,000 U.S. households conducted monthly. Margin of error for these demographic slices was unavailable. Workers are counted in a profession's unemployment pool only if their previous job was in that field and if they've been in the workforce within the past few years, thus factoring out both new graduates and those who have been out of the workforce for some time.

Nanci Schimizzi, the president of Women in Technology, a mentoring and advocacy group, said she knows a number of women who are 50 or older and are looking for work.

"They remain unemployed for long periods of time -- years -- to the point where many of them have more or less given up" and gone into alternate careers, said Schimizzi, who works in technology operations at an organization she asked not be named.

Four years ago, before the economic downturn, unemployment for computer and math professionals was 3.5% for men 55 and over and 4.2% for women the same age. The overall rate for younger professionals -- between the ages of 25 and 54 -- was just 1.7%.

Older workers, particularly when a company is changing its systems, can "find themselves highly paid, without the needed skills, and then they are the easiest targets," said Schimizzi.

Schimizzi said she isn't expecting the unemployment rate for older workers to decline, even when hiring picks up. If employers do hire older workers, it is likely to be for short-term contracts, she said. "I think full-time positions are going to be staffed from the younger workforce."

Al Williams, vice president of Share, an independent IBM user group and a director of IT at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., said people who are over 50 may face problems if they resist change. But the fact that they're likely to have higher salaries than their younger colleagues may put them at risk, too.

"I think the biggest risk in IT is we tend to define ourselves with the technology we like, rather than aligning ourselves with the strategies the business needs," said Williams.

Overall, the jobless rate for workers in computer and math fields was 5.2% last year, unchanged from 2009. Average unemployment for all professional occupations was 4.5%, with the lowest levels in the health and legal occupations, according to the government data. Architects and engineers had a higher unemployment rate, and those in the arts, entertainment, sports and media fared the worst.

IT job employment has been picking up, and the jobs that are most in demand favor young as well as older workers, according to Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), which runs a large IT skills certification program.

Thibodeaux says there is high demand for IT workers, particularly for those who can build mobile applications, work on a combination of security and cloud computing platforms, and handle cloud integration generally. People familiar with various cloud platforms, such as those run by Google, Amazon and Microsoft, as well as healthcare specialists and electronic medical records integrators, are also in demand.

While the mobile realm favors the young, "cloud and healthcare may be favoring older and more seasoned workers," said Thibodeaux.

The age issue is likely to gain importance because of the sheer size of the baby boom generation -- people born between 1946 and 1964, who make up more than 25% of the U.S. population and a substantial segment of the IT workforce. The federal government reports that people between 45 and 63 years of age accounted for 60% of its IT workforce in 2008, according to a federal study last year.

Farrokh Hormozi, a professor of economics and public administration at Pace University in New York, said the unemployment rates for older workers are what he would have expected.

"Older people have less opportunity to get back to the job market than younger people," said Hormozi, who tracks IT employment in the New York region as co-investigator of the Pace SkillProof IT Index.

The only time when older people could go into the job market and readily find work was during the boom years of the mid-1990s leading up to 2000, he said. "If you discount those years, the labor market has not been acting unexpectedly," said Hormozi.

"I hate to say it is human nature," said Hormozi, but "you always want to give an opportunity to younger people."

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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