IT Employment

Older workers fall into consulting's "gray" area

When recruiters say they're looking for someone "energetic," that usually means a recent college grad or twenty-something IT worker. Here's what one experienced IT professional thinks about a possible bias against older workers in the IT industry.

In today’s IT workforce, older, experienced IT pros, the segment of the labor pool that helped create the industry, are being passed over for jobs that are often then given to much younger applicants. In this article, I cite some recent statistics on the ages of IT workers and discuss my own experience with bias, both of which, in my opinion, demonstrate a subtle discrimination toward older workers in the information technology industry.

“Experienced” doesn’t mean “out of touch”
In an effort to hire the “best and brightest,” many companies currently recruit on college campuses or overseas, and even reserve special sections on their Web sites for recent or imminent graduates. Countless numbers of positions advertised today use such rhetoric as “young” or “energetic” in their recruiting jargon.

The prevalent reason for these recent hiring practices is that the people writing those ads, conducting the interviews, and hiring workers are young and are adamant believers that a fresher workforce is a better workforce. This type of logic is more idealistic than realistic, however, and ultimately harms the company when experience is sacrificed for youth.

With skilled labor supposedly so difficult to acquire and retain in this tight labor market, it’s ironic that seasoned consultants are faced with this predicament. These older IT pros tend to be enthusiastic, fit, stable, and confident in their skills—in other words, exactly the type of employees companies say they are seeking—but they’re underutilized or passed over for many positions.

This age discrimination distorts the perceived number of talented tech workers in America, hiding the fact that there are plenty of skilled people available to fill these positions. Recruiters and human resources staff alike are bypassing a growing segment of the population that could fill those countless IT job openings. Instead, these recruiters tend to hire people who look like them, went to the same schools, and engage in the same extracurricular activities.

Statistics suggest bias
Dr. Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California at Davis, contends that claims of major labor shortages made by the Information Technology Association of America are just a hidden agenda perpetuated by the ITAA to leverage Congress to increase the yearly quota of H-1B work visas—under which employers import thousands of young programmers to the U.S. each year.

“It seems that what this industry really wants is to fill its personnel needs with recent college graduates and immigrants—two categories of workers who are willing to work the longest hours for the least amount of money,” Matloff said. “Some employers will use the old ‘current skills’ issue as a pretext for hiring cheap, young programmers and for not hiring older, more experienced ones.”

According to a 1997 study conducted for the National Council on the Aging, there are considerable benefits to be gained from utilizing qualified older workers. These workers are considered to be reliable, thorough, conscientious, and dependable. They have fewer on-the-job accidents, miss less time than younger workers, are very assiduous in carrying out their assignments, retain their mental faculties, can learn new skills, and are often more adaptable.

The hiring of a younger workforce to take over key responsibilities—and assuming without justification that older employees will retire in the near future and younger employees have more productive years to offer—is a misguided assumption. In my years as a consultant, I have seen many capable mid-level managers replaced by younger employees, often with degree in hand and very little experience.

The U.S. Department of Commerce's recent report on the IT industry's worker shortage, “The Digital Work Force: Building InfoTech Skills at the Speed of Innovation,” reveals some startling numbers: 75 percent of systems analysts and computer scientists, and nearly 80 percent of computer programmers, are under the age of 45.

 My own brush with age discrimination
I experienced this bias firsthand recently when a prominent national telecommunications company contacted me for a position they said fit me perfectly. They were very enthusiastic after reviewing my resume and soon after sent me a job description. After reading it, I was confident that I could do the job. They were very persistent in their efforts to set up a meeting with me, so I flew to Phoenix to meet with them. The next day I went in for the interview. As soon as they saw my gray hair, their jaws dropped, and I knew immediately that I wasn't going to get the job. We plodded through an awkward interview, which ended with promises of “We’ll call you in a few days.” Naturally, that call never came. Wanting to force the issue, I called them several times, but my calls were never returned. The hiring manager’s assistant finally told me that I was “not quite right for the position.” Funny, I was perfect for the position over the phone.

Can anything be done about it?
So, what can an experienced consultant do to combat this age bias? Not a lot. Unfortunately, this bias is practiced by people who, more often than not, are going to deny it, and it’s not something that you can easily prove. You can save yourself some trouble and make sure the initial recruiter or company contact knows your age at the outset. You should follow this up by asking if your age might pose a problem. I now do this as a matter of course whenever I’m contacted about a position. I do this for those who can’t tell by reading my resume how many years it’s taken to acquire my skills and experience. After hundreds of interviews over the course of my career, I’ve found that if I’m going to be interviewed by someone named Amber, Brittany, Tyler, or Brooke, I’m going to be at a disadvantage.

If you’re looking for an online presence that caters to experienced IT professionals, try the good people at SeniorTechs, an Internet-based job data bank for experienced IT professionals that enables you to submit your profile via an easy-to-use interactive form.

Many recruiters and human resources professionals who hire IT workers would vehemently deny engaging in such insidious hiring practices. But the numbers seem to indicate otherwise.
Do you agree that older IT pros have a more difficult time finding work? If age discrimination in IT exists, how does it affect the consulting field? Post a comment below or send us a note.
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