Enterprise Software

Is engineering now a young man's game?

Depressing news for older engineers out of Silicon Valley: Engineering is a young person's game.

Recruiters at Silicon Valley companies lament that in the U.S. there is a shortage of qualified engineers. But unemployment figures show a different picture. So what's the deal? According to a piece by Vivek Wadhwa for TechCrunch, the truth of the situation is that tech companies prefer to hire young, inexperienced engineers rather than shell out the money for a seasoned veteran.

The thinking is that you can get a new programmer for about a third of the salary of an experienced programmer. Even if takes a few weeks for the new programmer to get trained, the company still saves money. Though they wouldn't publicly admit it, some companies prefer to get someone who is more eager with a "clean slate" that they can train as they want than hire someone with years of acquired knowledge.

Wadhwa's article talks about a new book called Chips and Change by University of California, Berkeley Professors Clair Brown and Greg Linden. The authors of the book cite Bureau of Labor Statistics and census data for the semiconductor industry and found that:

  • Salaries increased dramatically for engineers during their 30s but the increases slowed after the age of 40.
  • Over age 40, salaries started dropping, dependent on the level of education.
  • After 50, the mean salary of engineers was lower-by 17% for those with bachelors degrees, and by 14% for those with masters degrees and PhDs-than the salary of those younger than 50.

Wadhwa's advice for older workers is to move into management and/or keep their skills current.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

54 comments
kpthottam
kpthottam

"older workers is to move into management and/or keep their skills current" The only thing that rung true about the situation in IT Canada is currentness of skills !! But then again there are real labour laws in Canada

DMambo
DMambo

I think a broader question is what will happen to today's young guns? In 20 or 30 years, if they're lucky enough to survive global warming, the coming apocalypse and the super-bugs, what will their salaries look like? Has globalization caught up with the "developed" world to the point where North American salaries will level off until the rest of the world catches up? I'm not so sure that kids starting out today can count on what my generation considered the normal wage progression regarless of how well they stay current with new technology. It was much easier when the masses were unwashed and uneducated. Now they all have EE degrees.

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

I have heard this many times and seen people regret the day they folowed this gem. I remember a time when a company hired a group of new programmers following this old saw. It seems that the new developers didn't clean their machines during development and felt that because the DVD worked on their machines all was fine and peachy. Now experienced developers know they have to work on clean machines. The company followed the same guideline with their testers, hire young and inexperienced testers as well. An experienced test department would also have covered testing for this as well. So thousands of DVDs where made, distributed and sold at this point. Then disaster struck. Well, hundreds of the DVDs wouldn't work on customer's computers. So not only did the company waste all the money on the initial development, but they also had to pay for fixing the bugs, dealing with returns and angry customers. Not only did they have to deal with those customers, but they had to re-issue new DVDs to the customers as well as pull back all the old DVDs on the store shelves. I have seen this old saw put into practice about ten times and seen it fail most of the time. I have also seen garbage that did make it out the door and give companies a bad name all to save a few bucks.

SteveB68
SteveB68

Yes, but that is NOTHING new... it has always been a young man's game. We didn't discover this just in the last year... I'm pretty sure when I graduated from college back in the late '77 I was the cocky young thing that everyone hated. The really ugly problem today, especially pervasive in the IT industry, is that the "old" guys just don't have it... If I was a carpenter or plumber and had to compete with the young, faster men I'd be outdated... but there is no excuse for that in the IT industry where experience is valued and no physical skills are required to stay current and "hot" in your IT area. I'm wondering what we use as an excuse in the IT industry... I've been rejected by more 30-something hiring managers in the last year because I didn't fit the "age" part of their hiring demographic. Shame, I could have probably saved them a lot of stressful Fridays and Mondays when that "young buck" they hired couldn't make it in because of -yourexcusehere-.... Thank goodness I finally got in with a company rich enought to actually appreciate experience (thank you mucho, HP!) - not that I mean I am getting paid what I am worth. But I am getting paid a reasonable, average salary and in the worst "economy" we have seen in 50+ years, THAT (and having a job) feels pretty good. Oh, Toni, on a personal note I stll love that red hair! Best regards...BetterinBoise

rich_old_comcast@yahoo.
rich_old_comcast@yahoo.

The issue really is: what kind of engineer do you want? If you want someone to follow then inexperience is the way to go. If you want someone to architect/lead a system/project then experience is the way to go. Basically, you get what you pay for. The old: there is a fine edge sword between quantity and quality. Too much quantity causes less quality, and too much quality causes less quantity.

jdm12
jdm12

In other words, firms prefer to save money than to actually make money, because only the next quarter's profits have relevance, another sign of the decline of the west. America is now number 11, according to Newsweek.

Justin James
Justin James

When you work in a field that requires you to constantly update your skill set or fall behind, that's a field that an older worker usually won't do well in. It's not about what the older person can learn or whatever. It's about time. Fact is, at some point you develop a life. It's a LOT harder for me to stay on top of new technologies, write code and experiment with it, do personal learning projects, read books, etc. now that I have a wife and a child than it was when I had a girlfriend who didn't life with me and no child. I'm still able to do it, just because I'm still young enough (31) to have the physical and mental energy to stay up late and do it. But I can't see myself doing it much longer. At some point, emotionally I'm going to want to just finish up my day's work, spend time with the family, relax and read some fiction, and get to bed. Very few engineers get paid enough to justify the time spent off the clock staying abreast of the industry, we do it for the love of the tech, and those who lose that passion fall behind on the pay scales. J.Ja

RealGem
RealGem

I wish it took just a few weeks. New programmers have to learn the unique or unusual tools that we have, they have to learn our processes, and they have to learn our frameworks. It takes six months to get through the first two, but more than double that for the last bit.

kosimov
kosimov

I have heard this lament for the 40+ years I have been an engineer. I believe getting hired is mostly dependent on whether or not you can offer a skill set or other positive benefit to an employer. I have been out of work due to disability for several years, but I had no trouble finding work when I was "younger" but still thought of as "older" (40-50 years old, for example. One bit of advice I can offer which is obvious but still seems to be overlooked often: think about the job you are applying for. If it is for a "beginning programmer", you can probably guess they aren't looking for a 45 year old seasoned veteran. If the job is advertised in a very narrow way, you'd better make sure you fit the qualifications requirements almost 100%. If you pay attention, you will find jobs which are possibilities if you truly have talent. And, when you interview, do everything possible to "seem young". Dress, think, act, and talk "young for your age". If you have been engineering for 20 years, they will expect you to be able to address their needs extremely well. Don't give up! Maybe the easier to get jobs are hard for us older guys, but, there are still plenty of companies who just want the job to be done. If you are older and cost more, be prepared to justify why. Most engineers I've known just "whine" about this, rather than do something about it! That probably has more to do with why they can't get hired than the usual excuse such as "they only want young kids who will work for nothing". Sure, there are companies like that, but there are many others, mostly smaller companies perhaps, that will hire you. Get busy!

M_Maestro
M_Maestro

That's good for a person starting his career

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

I can say that we are expected to move into Management much sooner than your 50's as most companies want us there to control the youngsters that they hire. As an Electronic Engineer we are expected to have a Tight leash on those youngsters who are coming through and make them do as we want them which is what the company needs. As for the [b]Few Weeks[/b] bit it's a joke many expect to be able to design some code and then make the hardware to fit it not write the code to fit the existing hardware. That is a mindset that is very hard to break particularly with the people coming out of Uni for the last 15 or so years. We wrote the code properly now it's up to you to make the hardware to run it. Didn't matter that they where told to write some code to fit into a limited space you have to make the hardware suit their code. Generally their code is sloppy and extremely wasteful of resources as well. Now let the flames from the youngsters start. :^0 Col

RechTepublic
RechTepublic

After all of the crap about sexism I read at TR I am suprised at your title. I guess you better watch you back because a younger, more recently educated person would know better than to direct this issue a particular sex. In addition, they would not use cliche's for the sake of using them if that happens to be your reasoning. Of course I am assuming that you did not intend to single out men and that you, like any older writer, did not see a problem with generalizing. On the other hand you may have a serious problem with males and it slips out from time to time in your writing. My point is that everyone in every profession needs to stay current with what the younger generation is learning or be ready to be replaced. However, I can understand why a woman would write such an article, you know it is just "women's work"..just kidding...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

That's why you ads for juniors with 2+ years experience. It's about cheap. Roles for really good experienced engineers are rare because engineers are rarely considered necessary. As for those statistics, How many of those guys with a PHD earning 14% more are engineering and not managing. In the corporate world management is a much more valued skill than engineering, it's that simple....

jkameleon
jkameleon

It's not just the Silicon Valley, it's standard practice everywhere in the world. There's even the term for it: Geeksploitation. Employers, trade magazines, and the rest of... let's call that "establishment" will never admit it, for obvious reasons. That's why this post on "The Joel on Software" generated that much controversy and had to be closed: http://discuss.joelonsoftware.com/default.asp?joel.3.217131.40

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

makes up for all that hardship getting it when the non University types rubbed my nose in their 9-5 monies.

tbmay
tbmay

I suppose the most annoying thing is the constant whining about no qualified people. What these folks are really saying is, "We're having trouble finding qualified people to work for next to nothing so we need loose regs regarding hiring foreign workers." Regarding the advice at the end, if it's true employers don't want to hire older workers because of things like wanting a youngster to mold, or maybe not wanting to hire someone the manager is intimidated by, I don't think keeping skills current is going to help. Keeping skills current is always necessary.

bklau2006
bklau2006

@DMambo You hit it right on the nail with the statement: "Has globalization caught up with the "developed" world to the point where North American salaries will level off until the rest of the world catches up?" This is what I coined as "Economic Dilution Factor". A gist of what it is is as follows: Economic powers passed from regional center to another. In short from Europe(Renaissance to WWI) period) to America(after WWII) and then now to the East. This is accelerated by the Internet and disemination of knowledge and currencies more easily. They are "fluids". Using water as an analogy, where it's heaped up at a single spot, it will gradually flow out to other level-ground and dilute the water level at the origin. We can see that knowledge and money are like water;it used to be that knowledge and economic powers centered in US/Europe and these have flowed (like water analogy) to elsewhere. Inevitably, this the result of "blow-back" effect of free trade. Free trade tries to maximize productivities and profits(for who?) globally. While currencies can flow freely without borders, people can't. People are more limited by time, cultures and physical barriers, staying at a single spot, more or less. Total free trade benefited the "business oligarchs" more than common folks. The richs can move their monies and themselves to locations of maximum profitablites and productvites while small guys stuck in a single location. Jobs can only flow back to US only if we are cheaper or master a superior/system technologies that others find it harder to duplicate. I see it as very tough since for most part the Hitech in US are oiling its own guillotine for short term gains. Don't be surprised if there are more and more "illegals workers" in China are from US!. We are the new "Mexicans in China". It would be sad. My prediction is that some protectionisms will be forthcoming after the Free Trade experiment failed.

bklau2006
bklau2006

I ageed. Globalization. Commoditization. Well, it even manifest itself in infrastructures: SOA, Cloud computing. A Chinese manager at a consulting outsourcing firm put it bluntly when I asked him about software engineers in China: " We don't hire folks older than 35. Also, we prefer engineers who are single or better still those without any girlfriends...". There you have it. Totaly loyalty and enslavement. I see that the we have new "pharoahs","slave-drivers" and "pyramids" to build. We haven't change much, have we? Used and discard is the new motto.

WebCzar
WebCzar

Don't lump the term 'Software Engineer' in with traditional engineering disciplines such as Electrical, Mechanical, Aerospace, Industrial, among others. It's a misnomer. 'Software Engineer' is a dubious term, and I seriously doubt most programmers had to take 4 semesters of Calculus/Diff EQs, 4 sems of University Physics, Chemistry, etc. In the traditional engineering professions, there is no substitute for the experience of a veteran engineer... rookies ARE rookies.

Realvdude
Realvdude

and a older worker that has stayed loyal to a company that has not stayed current, is going to find it harder to change jobs when downsized, outsourced or the company folds. Now that kids are all but gone from home, I am working on moving from free-form lifestyle to being more structured again, and including some education time.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

teaching them that one character variable names, global variables, gotos , side effects, functions that do do twenty different things, always re-use and incomprensible code are not necessarily all they are cracked up to be.... And debugging, that's six months all by itself.

steve
steve

Perhaps the problem is they are looking for the wrong people? They think they want Engineers when they really want Software - "engineers" -Programmers. (I speak as a programmer not an Engineer) Secondly, Yup, they pay peanuts, they get ..... Thats why the Software these days is only partially tested, bloated, and wastes resources. Remember when a complete operating system (interpreted too not compiled) ran in 48kb.....still that's progress ;) SB

B9Girl
B9Girl

From what I know about tech journalism, the author is usually responsible for the body copy and editors (or other appointed folk) write the titles. If you notice, she writes "younger person's" in the copy, but the title is out of sync and refers instead to "younger man's". But she is the name associated with the article, so she gets the blame. Gotta love journalism! Maybe someone felt like poking a hornets nest on a slow news day...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

There are so many strawpersons in your post it looks like a scarecrow convention. "My point is that everyone in every profession needs to stay current with what the younger generation is learning or be ready to be replaced." Toni's point in the article was that it doesn't matter if you do this, you'll still get stuffed by management desire for some cheaper newbie. Tony for once agrees with her.

WebCzar
WebCzar

I read the other article at the link you posted and must admit that I agree with both. It's not just the lower cost of exploiting the starry-eyed dreams of younger geeks and hack programmers, college educated or otherwise... after all, Gates did drop out. The entire 'profession' of software development is being devalued and treated the same as 'labor' costs for manufacturing. This is indeed how upper management and the business and sales managers seem to view software development nowadays... as a menial labor cost and a commodity. 'HR buzzwords' is a perfect example of how they view the IT staff. If you doubt this, just look at job postings online, it's blatantly obvious that most listings are spewed out by HR dolts without any clue. As I've told my fiancee, the skill-set listed on some jobs takes 10+ years to accumulate, and then they offer a rate $15-$20 per hour. It's the 'bottom line' mentality, and that means more outsourcing to India, Russia, and China, where 'labor' costs are 10% of the US. The worst part is, we allow them to come here, enroll in our universities, and take our technology AND jobs back to China, etc. What we need to do, is automate a lot of the functions performed by 'management' and give them a dose of their own medicine...

sissy sue
sissy sue

One point that has not been discussed here is the role of the contractor. I can understand that companies prefer to hire young people, because older folks expect more pay for experience and cost more in health care. Besides, employers are generally looking for people in whom they can invest. A person who might be considering retirement in 10 or 20 years may not be as attractive as a person who has a long career ahead of him/her. The solution, then, is to look "outside the box" of the traditional employer-employee relationship. I am almost 60 years old, and have been a contractor for 22 years. I have never had a problem finding work. Consulting companies who hire temporary help for their clients don't care if you are 100 years old, as long as you have the skill set the client is looking for and have demonstrated through your resume that you have kept up with the times and have a recent work history. We could talk about age discrimination in the US, but that would be a short discussion. Of course there is age discrimination! Do you see anyone in the government caring, despite laws to the contrary? Of course not! We supposedly have a free-market economy, and it is up to each person to find his/her own way. Good luck to all of you!

WebTek2
WebTek2

I agree totally TBMAY. I have over 23 years of hands-on experience in the IT field and over 15 years sales experience before that. From what I have observed in salary offerings for current openings here in the Phoenix area, especially with the State of Arizona, it's down right ridiculous. Employers may find an experienced person that will accept the salary offer, but I doubt they will stay long at that range. I'm not putting down class or book experienced admins, but nothing takes the place of "been there, done that". Mama always said "Can't have your cake and eat it too"!! My Two Cents...

Justin James
Justin James

I suspect that the original author (Toni) used "engineer" to mean folks related to the software development profession, system administrators, networking folks, etc., not someone who designs bridges, circuit boards, etc. So I was responding to that suspicion. Even in software engineering, being a veteran is important, but the big difference is that veteran status loses its marketability without the constantly skill set upgrade hamster wheel... run all day but go nowhere, take a breather and get thrown off the wheel and have a hard climb back. It's exhausting! J.Ja

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Those professions have a lot of useful and critical math. Hard and proven and very descriptive. Software engineers create descriptions.... I've worked with a lot of engineers, prgrammed in heavy industry), none of them lacked respect for software engineering, they could n't do it you see.... Too soft.

clerinsmadona
clerinsmadona

I know that agree is a main verb but I see people use it the firs way(are you agree) , what is the reason? Natura Cleanse

Izzmo
Izzmo

The things you are mentioning are the exact reasons companies want 'younger' people to come in and replace you. Because your practices and techniques are dated to where your efficiency is all out of whack. Youngsters can be molded to write more efficient code that does not need as much debugging or looking after when it is implemented. At least from my experience, this is how it usually works out. With a fresh mind comes new ideas.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Only if you get very lucky Tony. I've seen instances where some youngsters could spent the rest of their lives attempting to debug a bit of code that they put together [b]"Correctly"[/b] well at least according to their Text Books and they have no idea of what they have done. :D Col

bergenfx
bergenfx

Tony agrees with Toni. (30 degree roto-wave, fingers glued together)

bklau2006
bklau2006

@Webzar Hits right on!. You stated it so elegantly: "The entire 'profession' of software development is being devalued and treated the same as 'labor' costs for manufacturing. This is indeed how upper management and the business and sales managers seem to view software development nowadays... as a menial labor cost and a commodity." That's what it is. A software developer/engineer is now seen as the "toilet plumber" of the 21st century. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRcoBJ3Wa0o

jkameleon
jkameleon

and a couple of PHBs to lead them all. That's the IT nowadays.

steve
steve

I think on balance you could be wrong about "A person who might be considering retirement in 10 or 20 years may not be as attractive as a person who has a long career ahead of him/her" In my experience, someone looking to retire in 10 or 20 years is likely to want to have a settled job, they have committments and will be prepared to stick with a company for that long. One of my least favourite interview questions "Where do you see yourself in five years" will show you the mindset of younger applicants. They want a career, they WILL move on. If they don't say "I want to be running my own company" or "want your job" then don't employ them, they have no imagination or drive ;)

israel
israel

Maybe I'm wrong, but my personal experience shows the world today that investing on employees is a thing of the past. Yes there are exceptions, but in general how many people do we know that have been working 10+ years in the same Co? It's all about the money. But think about it, hire a qualified person in their 50s, get your monies worth and have them train the newbie as they approach retirement. How can you loose? Not the way our world works!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

capable of choosing materials, methodology and process to achieve a set of objectives. So some of us are and some aren't and some of each do some of it some of the time, regardless of what HR call us. I wish there was a certification in software engineering, but it's not just us who find it hard to define. Vendors would make a bog of it with their technology set as a contraint. Academia as far as I can make out have no interest in any practical aspects of the discipline. Like I say I've worked with them, many times in partnership and I'd match my skills versus theirs in our respective arenas any time. Oh and please don't mention engineers and rudimentary programming skills again :( , aside from making me revisit a couple of nightmares, rudimentary skills do not make an engineer.

WebCzar
WebCzar

Perhaps you misconstrued my remarks, as I didn't mean to imply a lack of respect... most engineering majors are expected to know how to program at a rudimentary level. My point was that the term 'software engineer' is a catch-phrase to recruit more fodder (financial aid $) for the universities by using the word 'engineer' to add some luster. Typically, in the united States, 'software engineering' is a focus or specialization within a Systems, Industrial, or Computer (electrical) Engineering degree... while 'Computer Science' is often in the Arts & Sciences departments and does not require the rigorous courses in Physics, Chemistry, etc and associated laboratory sessions. They are PROGRAMMERS, Systems Analysts, or 'Software Developers/Architects'... and if they didn't pursue an accredited ENGINEERING degree, they are not certified as engineers. The use of the word 'engineer' in the title of the article just perpetuates a fallacy. Browse Craigslist (Phoenix) for example, and you'll see 'Engineering' positions offered with a salary for a given specialty. Then, look at what the 'software, web, and DB developers/engineers/designers are offered: $10 - $25 per hour. Did you catch that? A SALARY versus an HOURLY rate... i.e. skilled LABOR. Labor is now a global commodity, often outsourced to the lowest bidder. 'Free trade' has been very costly to the West and drives down wages. It should be called 'free-to-enslave' trade. Software developers, IT, and MIS have taken a hit. Who's next?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

http://techrepublic.com.com/5208-6230-0.html?forumID=102&threadID=270914&messageID=2567018&tag=content;leftCol I suggest you take it, before you do yourself a major mischief. Just think about what doing our job fairly close to the forefront of the industry longer than you've been alive means. There is no trained, it keeps changing. As you go on, you pick up new things, stick older ones into storage, realise the new thing isn't all that new, and much of the old stuff still applies. Do you know what happened when I trained myself out of my job? I got a better one, because I was a proven trainer, 14k pay rise as well. Shyt happens, to us all, the only thing being old does is take out the surprise factor. Your surprises are liable to be rude and unfriendly if you don't clean out your BS filters and get some street radar going.

Izzmo
Izzmo

You are forgetting one important point. Once trained, what's to keep the company from firing the "old man"?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

who are totally crap at debugging. Other people's code or their own after some time away. The guess and cross your fingers approach, or how to replace one bug with three and two new undocumented features. :(

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

coz there's something down there.. EDIT - just had a look at a few of your other posts on TR. Even BA would have trouble pitying some of your comments. I'm done conversing with you now. Enjoy your nice dead end job.

jkameleon
jkameleon

You said you're qualified and experienced to do your charges jobs. But you don't. You are not willing.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Who's not willing, me? I don't follow your warped view of life - having to much fun.

jkameleon
jkameleon

... since you are not willing. I'm sure that you could, properly organized and automatized, manage to do the job of your department (unless it's a lowest level tech support help desk, or something similar). But, you don't. You don't, because you are willing to give... ummmm... maybe 1 to 10% of your best, just like the rest of us. And so you need a department of, say 10 or 20 people, each giving his 1-10%, to do the job instead of you. That's how the business is done.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

I could just go alone and manage it well.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Me and ilk don't make your job harder. We keep your job. Without us- who would need managers?

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

seeing you are in the field, which are you?