Attention CIOs: Hold the hair dye. A new human resource study predicts that senior tech managers will have better career opportunities and be in high demand in just a few short years—that is, if they play their “experience” and “flexibility” cards right.

In direct contrast to longtime assertions that the elder tech professional population has long been discriminated against and pushed aside in favor of younger, and cheaper, IT staff, Drake Beam Morin (DBM), a New York City human resource firm, says experienced professionals will soon be a hot staffing commodity.

That’s a welcome message to longtime CIOs worried about tenure and senior tech leaders looking to advance in the next few years. To get some insight and feedback on this latest staffing prediction, TechRepublic talked with three experts: John Fink, DBM’s CFO; Pam Wiedenbeck, western regional manager with SEI Information Technology; and Jai Shekhawat, CEO and cofounder of Fieldglass, a software maker.

While the experts suggested varying reasons for the hiring shift, they all agree that older tech leaders provide three valuable staff attributes: flexibility, experience, and networking skills.

The buzz about baby boomers
As member discussions on TechRepublic attest, the term “old” is extremely relative when it comes to the technology industry, as members state that some hiring managers consider age 35 to be old. There also has been a long, and raging, industry debate regarding age discrimination and the impact of younger, cheaper, immigrant labor.

But several factors, including the terrorist acts last fall, are prompting dramatic hiring changes, according to DBM. The firm suggests that older workers’ experience and flexibility will result in a leveled playing field between older workers and Gen Xers, people born from the early 1960s to the late 1970s.

One logical reason for the shift is that there will be more “seniors” in the work pool than ever. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, an agency within the U.S. Department of Labor, predicts significant growth for the baby boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) and that the 50-and-over civilian labor force will grow 46 percent by 2010.

Another factor is an expected skills shortage in the second half of this year, says Shekhawat, who is also cofounder of IT20 and a former consultant with McKinsey & Company. He expects companies will be actively seeking an experienced pool of workers to fill project needs.

“I think older workers, in general, are an underappreciated source of talent, especially in times of resource scarcity,” says Shekhawat. “[One reason for that is because] they’re often incorrectly thought of as being ‘behind the curve’ or not current with technologies.”

The edge is in the flexibility factor
A key element in turning the hiring trend from young to older is the fact that senior workers are likely to be much more flexible. A recent DBM study indicates that while the majority of Gen Xers and baby boomers are searching for full-time gigs, workers over the age of 55 generally seek more flexible arrangements, such as part-time positions, self-employment, and consulting work. That’s a compelling hiring factor for today’s enterprises, says Fink.

“It gives [senior staff] an edge, potentially, over a worker who is fixed in their need for a full-time permanent position with a full load of benefits,” he explains. “They might consider flexible hours; they might consider a contractor type of relationship. I think that’s attractive to many CFOs and senior management teams right now because they are under pressure not to staff up their permanent headcount.”

Wiedenbeck, who handles hiring and career development at SEI, echoes Fink’s comments and says managers want employees who can work various schedules and are willing to travel.

“I’ve seen more and more companies asking their executives, particularly their IT executives, to travel to other sites to integrate the strategies of the company,” she says.

Besides flexibility, Fink says corporate IT units are tired of investing time and money in less experienced workers and dealing with an inherent learning curve. The hiring impetus is not about finding experts in coding or programming anymore, Fink says, explaining that firms want polished pros with the ability to build business processes and implement strategies.

“I think employers are looking for IT professionals who can walk in the door and produce,” he says. “People are looking for some seasoned professionals who can work the softer side of IT as well as managing a staff of developers, who may be contractors themselves.”

Honed networking skills will bring new opportunities
For experienced managers and staffers, the new hiring approach provides an opportunity to put sharpened networking skills to work. Workers over 50 have likely built a number of contacts that could pay dividends in the next few years, Fink points out. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Fink says employers are looking “closer to home” for employees and resources—and considering a bigger candidate population.

“They’re looking for people who are either inside the organization already or have some relationship, past or present, with the organization,” he says. “They want to know that someone can truly vouch for this person, as opposed to picking them up from a third-party recruiter.”

Advice for CIOs, and wanna-bes
But just because hiring managers are opening more doors to senior staff doesn’t mean CIOs should sit on their laurels. If you’re a seasoned tech pro considering a career move, here’s some advice from Shekhawat:

  • Take courses to keep skills current or be willing to accept a less-than-perfect job if it helps you acquire desirable skills. Wiedenbeck points out that SEI is seeing many projects that require “deep industry knowledge,” along with an understanding of the latest technologies, such as Web Services and .NET.
  • Stress your maturity. In times of uncertainty, companies will value the well-grounded employee who can hold a team together. Don’t be apologetic if you learned to program on punch cards—that experience is actually a strength if presented in combination with more recent skills.

If you’re hoping to make the leap to CIO this year, Shekhawat recommends sharpening presentation skills. If your experience is mainly technical, “be sure to speak in plain English and constantly demystify your world for the other senior executives,” he advises, regarding job interviews. “All they want to know is how the company’s tech budget will help the core business.”

He suggests learning to present technology initiatives in terms of ROI, cost and benefit, and productivity gains, a process that will make projects more “concrete” for the CEO, he says.

Wiedenbeck suggests that job hunters develop a good “elevator pitch” tailored to the companies they’re interested in working for. The “elevator pitch” is a short speech that tells “who you are, what you do best, how you do it, and why you can make a difference to the company,” she explains.

Have you noticed this trend?

Are you an “older worker” whose resume has attracted more attention lately? Send us an e-mail or discuss your experience below.