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3/12/2013
09:31 AM
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IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur

In our discussion of IT ageism, many IT pros say they feel caught in a hiring trap. Don't wait for some big, slow and stupid organization to snap you up.

In response to my last column, in which I suggested there's a big difference between employer age discrimination and employees' failure to keep their skills current, I heard from quite a few readers who insisted I was missing the point. Their prevailing viewpoint: There's an "open secret" that big companies tailor their hiring and layoff practices to replace senior IT staffers with less expensive ones, irrespective of the talent they're losing.

My response to them: If that's the case at your company or organization -- if, as you say, your employer is idiotic and dysfunctional -- why would you want to continue to work there? Even if you don't get laid off, run. Run fast.

Again, I want to make it very clear that there's a world of difference between doing thoughtful cost cutting and dealing with employee inertia, and engaging in ageism to make the books look better.

Business environments legitimately change, and organizations have no choice but to adapt. For example, most data centers used to have "operators" who would change paper on massive line printers, change job tapes -- things that are no longer needed. Are those operators still employed? No, not unless they updated their skills. Good employers will help transition those folks humanely or attrition those jobs out. Organizations that don't are at a competitive disadvantage against those that do.

But what about those IT employers that actively engage in slash-and-burn age discrimination? The data suggests they're very much out there.

UC-Davis professor Norm Matloff, a critic of the U.S. H-1B visa program, says in his newsletter that he sees a pattern in Silicon Valley in particular: "Limit hiring to new or recent graduates, freezing out the people over 35, and then claim there is a 'shortage.' Once again, the young are cheaper, both in salary and benefits, so the driver here is money. … Of course, H-1B directly ties into this. The data show that most of the H-1Bs are young, especially true in the computer field."

Another critic, Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ron Hira, says that more than two-thirds of employer H-1B petitions in fiscal year 2011 (the latest year for which there's data) were for workers age 25 to 34. Only 9.8% of petitions were for workers 40 and older.

The IEEE has tracked member employment since at least 1999, and at least from a perception standpoint, age has ranked No. 1 in "barriers to re-employment." That survey finding is easy to shrug off, but the objective data shows that across professions, for each additional year of age the delay between unemployment and re-employment increases.

Given the evidence, I can't disagree with my friend and tech colleague who said: "Smart older workers should not count on the loyalty of anyone around them. It doesn't exist. You should have your eye on the next thing you want to do, and be ready to pull the trigger at any time."

In my last column, I wrote that if you've had a rich, accomplished career and you've kept your skill set sharp, there's more work to be had and done. One snarky reader replied: "Yeah, move to India."

Really? So you're saying on one hand that you're expert, skilled and motivated? But on the other hand, you're saying there's nowhere else in the U.S. for you to contribute value and get paid for it? Perhaps you're not looking beyond the big, idiotic IT employers. It's time to take a look at small and midsize companies, those that are growing quickly and whose business practices aren't steeped in generations of dysfunction and shortsightedness.

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Bruce Nussbaum, professor of innovation and design at Parsons, recently echoed that sentiment in Wired magazine when he said that companies less than five years old "have been responsible for all the net new jobs in the United States for the past three decades." Nussbaum touts the benefits of what calls "Indie Capitalism," where startups are leveraging the Internet and innovation best practices to capture big slices of markets. So don't tell me there's nothing out there ... unless you've got "I will work only for the people who don't want me" tunnel vision.

Which brings me to the bigger point: Don't complain about things you really can't change. Older IT pros talk about unfair H1-B visa regulations and ineffective age discrimination laws, but those kinds of issues are what the late Jerry Sternin, former director of Save The Children in Vietnam, would have called TBU: true, but useless. In the same way that Sternin made a massive difference with Vietnam's malnourished kids without solving the root problems of poverty, unsafe water supplies and poor sanitation, you need to think about how you're going to improve your personal lot without having to wait for the root problems to be solved.

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Faye Kane, homeless brain
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Faye Kane, homeless brain,
User Rank: Strategist
3/31/2013 | 8:13:47 AM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
==--
If people treat you unfairly and illegally at work, start your own company? What kind of bull shee-yit advice is this?

That's like telling a black guy who was wrongly fired by a new racist boss to go back to Africa.

It's like telling someone who was turned down by an employer because he's gay to forget about it and move to Provincetown.

Your advice is basically "Got beat up and robbed on the street? Tough tiddies!"

Yeah, we all know that we're free to start our own company! So WHAT? We're also free to win the lottery or get a job throwing burgers at McDonald's. I could even work as a stripper.

But none of us cares about that because we want to be hired.
As an employee.
In a cubicle.
By an employer.
At a company.


We don't want to start a new company! We want to go to work every day like everyone else does and like we always have until we were treated with shocking disrespect by office politics, wrongly fired, and everyone said how shameful it was and looked the other way.

I was a purple squirrel at an AOL interview. There probably aren't but a dozen people in the country who had the exact obscure skills they needed, and I had truly astounding references. I even said I'd work for less than the going rate if that's what it took to work at my perfect job.

It was *OBVIOUS* that I didn't get hired because I'm 20 years older than the kid interviewing me, as well as everyone I passed in the hall there.

And that wasn't the first time; it was just the last straw. I ultimately gave up, abandoned "humanity", and moved into a cave in the woods where I steal electricity, have wireless net, and lay around naked all day reading math books and watching porn. (Yes really, google me.) But I'd much RATHER do the complex things I love, that I've won awards for doing, and do far better than anyone else.

Your article is useless. If you don't have a solution to this market failureGă÷and there is none save tearing down greed-based capitalism and replacing it with functional, integrated systems managementGă÷then just STFU and write an article about something else.

-- faye kane homeless brain
The sexiest astrophysicist you'll ever see naked
UberGoober
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UberGoober,
User Rank: Strategist
3/15/2013 | 5:00:30 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
Actually, Andrew, we called it a "service bureau" if we didn't own the computer and hired space on someone elses and accessed it remotely; this is exactly analogous to what we call 'cloud computing' today. If we did own the computer, it was the mainframe (or mini in smaller companies).
jfeldman
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jfeldman,
User Rank: Strategist
3/14/2013 | 8:41:13 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
There's a big myth about "startup failure." The definition of "failure" to a venture capitalist is VERY different than a "failure" to someone who is "just" trying to make a great salary and have a sustainable business. Read $100 Startup -- Chris has some great data in his book.
EVVJSK
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EVVJSK,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/13/2013 | 1:14:47 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
Sounds like a Private Equity Firm takeover or something similar. Slash and Burn now, rebuild later at lower cost with cheaper staff.
Andrew Hornback
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Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/13/2013 | 3:31:20 AM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
Jonathan - I've seen some wild and crazy stuff in my days, but one that really got to me regarding odd-ball layoffs and an extremely bad case of leadership happened as an organization that I'm familiar with had just completed it's second acquisition in less than 6 months. Things looked to be going very well - and then the wheels came off in VERY short order. Within 10 business days, 40% of the C-suites emptied (CFO and COO). Within the next 10 business days, an entire development team which had built a platform that handled upwards of 750 million web hits a day got laid off - every single person on the team. Within the next 20 business days, internal support started getting cut.

These were people that had been with the company since the day that the doors opened (12 years), all gone... because the second merger was done without management fully understanding the implications of what they were doing.

Leadership capabilities and positions, loyalty to the company... none of that matters in the market anymore, especially when you have top echelon management making very serious mistakes. At that point, all of the credentials and skillset in the world can't save people from being collateral damage.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
Andrew Hornback
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Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/13/2013 | 3:21:38 AM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
I think part of the problem here, with an older IT person who has kept current and isn't excited about cool new stuff... technology has a cycle of "new ideas" that seem to be recycled from the old ones of yesteryear.

For example, the push to cloud computing - Great, you want to put all of your applications, data and computing power in a single location and access them remotely. Years ago, we called that mainframe computing. When you've been around long enough, you see all of the different trends ebb and flow. It's hard to get excited about something new when you remember seeing it peak, flourish and then die away to be replaced by something else.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
dbell947
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dbell947,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/12/2013 | 10:30:27 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
Well I am a violator of the Under 40 times 2 Rule. I am I.T., I am over 40, and I make over 40k. If I work for a small start up there is the force of probabilities (80% or more AGAINST a start up succeeding). Maybe I can choose to simply deny the force of probabilities, but then I can deny gravity too. However, if I jump off a bridge, reality WILL hit me no matter how I personally "feel" about it via "positive thinking." So fortunately I had a plan B to I.T. I am also a licensed health professional, and my old job classification pays better than I.T., isn't age-ist, can't be outsourced, and PAYS for my CEUs so I can renew my license. Adios I.T. But consider this: what if medicine, research science, or other professions had the "Under 40 times 2 Rule" that dominates I.T.? What discoveries and information would be sacrificed? Einstein would have been thrown on the junk heap before expanding his theories, R. Oppenheimer would not have developed fission (he was over 40 and goodbye nuclear industry), Salk would have not developed his vaccine (he was over 40 when it was released and then hello polio). I.T., due to age-ism is truly no profession in which to spend much time, nor any profession in which to count on if you want to have a reasonably secure future. And despite the Horatio Alger, John Wayne, "free market" bravado, even big companies hate and fear competition. And they have far more resources and risk tolerance than most I.T. pros.
jfeldman
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jfeldman,
User Rank: Strategist
3/12/2013 | 9:46:28 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
It's a big long answer, but you'll find it in some of the books I recommend. Hang in there!
John80224
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John80224,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/12/2013 | 9:45:42 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
OK, I've read the rest. There's some solid advice, but I would suggest that it not just be left to, "Oh well, I got screwed. What's left?"

Absolutely, griping solely because you are mad solves very little beyond some initial cathartic sense. But working toward positive change, even if it does not directly undo the wrongs you perceived against you, does mitigate the chances it will happen again or to someone else.
jfeldman
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jfeldman,
User Rank: Strategist
3/12/2013 | 9:45:03 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
Thanks "Tree!" Yeah, data is really important to me as well. I have to tell you, people who understand technology who ALSO understand leadership are in such short supply, I think you WILL be distinguished if and when the reorg / layoff happens. Another helpful thing to do is to participate in community forums (with your real name, LOL). I know some folks who DO NOT hire unless there's a significant "google track" for the candidate. I'm not necessarily a fan of that practice, but it's being done and folks need to be aware of it.
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