The technology brain drain

The hard reality is that the Baby Boomers are going to retire, and they will do it in record numbers. This means that the last of the old school, the people who have been with a company 10 years or more, is going to go. What knowledge will they take with them and how can it be replaced?

Why doesn’t anyone seem to know that the mentors of the IT department are reaching retirement age? Why isn't it more important?

The “heart and soul” of many IT departments is slowly trickling away. What is surprising is that business hardly notices and doesn’t seem to care.

I'm talking about the workers who have a significant, long-term investment in a company. The architect who designed the complex system that is still business critical, the Business Analyst who can shave days off of a project because they know exactly who to contact and exactly what to say in every situation, the programmer whose intimate knowledge of how the system works allows him to write maintenance code that is essentially bullet proof. These people tend to have two things in common -- a commitment to the company, and generally, a generation.

The Baby Boomers are retiring. In fact, the oldest are now eligible for Social Security. You would think that business would recognize that the key players are going to be gone soon and their replacements may not exist. Computer science enrollments have dropped 14% each year between 2004 and 2006. There is a definite concern that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) enrollees have declined to a level that could potentially have an impact even on Homeland Security.

You would think that the significant decline would have employers concerned. After all, these are the people who have unique knowledge of the environment. They are the first ones who are called when things go awry. But you would be wrong.

From ComputerWorld:

Although IT organizations certainly understand these workforce trends, many are not taking significant measures to mitigate the risks that the loss of intellectual capital seems to portend. Even outside of IT, many companies seem unconcerned by boomer retirements. In a 2006 survey of 488 companies conducted by Buck Consultants LLC, only 42% of the respondents said that the aging workforce was a significant issue, and 29% said it had little or no significance.

And in a nationwide study of 550 human resources managers conducted by last summer, only 12% of the respondents said they consider knowledge retention a high priority within their companies, even though one-third said they expect at least 20% of their workforce to retire in the next decade.

The inescapable conclusion seems to be that many businesses are perfectly content to see their boomers walk out the door. And because so few organizations have taken the retirement issue seriously, companies that want to transfer knowledge from older to younger workers have few models to follow. As a result, those that are attempting to get ahead of the retirement wave are finding themselves pretty much on their own.

One common practice, to let the key individual retire and then hire them back as a consultant, doesn’t really provide much of a solution. That practice tends to obscure the issue, because consultant pay doesn’t show up in the budget as a salary cost, and companies don’t readily see the problem. Since the problem is invisible, there is no effort to find a solution.

What is your company doing to “stem the tide?” Do you have a co-worker that the company would be lost without? Are YOU the person that would take too much business intelligence out the door when you go? What do you think is the best approach to addressing this issue?