IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur - InformationWeek
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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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User Rank: Apprentice
3/12/2013 | 9:14:06 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
Good stuff, Jonathan. I appreciate the IEEE data sources and quotes from professors -- a welcome antidote from pontificating. I also agree with Somedude8 -- the enthusiasm level among 40-something and 50-something IT workers is often substantially different from that of 20-somethings. The desire for excellence remains, but the passion has become more nuanced. "I know what it feels like to push really hard, and not seem to make progress -- been there, did that. Give me some tough, technical problem to solve and get outta my way!" Another factor affecting passion/enthusiasm for older IT pros are those who have spent some time in supervision (like me). Are my technical chops current? Um, no. I had to invest some time and effort in improving my leadership and people skills. Will that help me get a job doing mobile app development or big data analytics? Nope. More importantly, how would I position those skills to distinguish me from the bazillion other IT supervisors who may also have been laid off in a recen re-org or outsourcing?
User Rank: Strategist
3/12/2013 | 7:32:33 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
I've not yet read that far into your article, but to answer your first question:

Welcome to corporate America. It may be a distorted view, but we generally have three options: 1) work where a future exists, 2) work where a fabulous future might exist if the cards fall right or 3) work where there's no future but comfort. The last two are essentially the same--smallish companies. (2) is simply newer or still thinks they're destined for bigger things. The first then is the only established option--large corporations who treat employees like cattle, but where there's an infrastructure that retirement, movement, new initiatives and the annual reorg at least provide potential for growth. Also, just because the current management in your company may be stupid does not guarantee that the next reorg's will be.

Personally, I was recruited and ready to be a manager days before the layoffs started. It left me four years away from being in even a partially similar situation again.

And sometimes, not all of us get to have our dream job. I find it fairly cavalier possibly even naive to insinuate we should be happy to be tossed aside because of what we see as current poor management.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/12/2013 | 7:13:17 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur

Over the years I have come to judge IT departmental management by the level of urgency - or lack of urgency - of their personnel needs as displayed in the job requirements submitted to their preferred vendors (personnel agencies). Requirements like ***HOT***!!! URGENT!! *IMMEDIATE* START!!! ... I know already that the management of the department is poor and does little to no planning. They've probably piled all the knowledge, work, and responsibility onto one person with a name - that name is leaving - and no system was ever in place to spread that knowledge beyond that one person. And if I submit my resume and get and take the assignment, I know that I will be walking into a Mess. At that point I have to think about the rate, the commute, and any other perks and decide if they are worth walking into the Mess.
This speaks to the plea we hear from the executives and lobbyists that the companies simply can't be bound to a process of having to look for American talent first before reaching for the phone and calling the H-1B visa mill, because they need people almost immediately due the exigencies of the tech business blah blah blah... I just call it poor planning.

User Rank: Ninja
3/12/2013 | 5:49:48 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
For older IT people that keep their skills up to date and relevant, there seems to be no shortage of work, at least form what I am seeing. However, there does seem to be some expectation that if you are older, you probably haven't kept your skillset up to date.
Another thing that sags with age for too many people is the interest in the work, the excitement about it. Finding an older person who has kept current, and is still excited about cool new stuff is not so easy. I am one of them though, and have had no problem finding work. In fact, I have turned away more work in the last 2 or 3 years than ever.
I can't blame companies if my skills lag behind what they need, or I am not excited about my work.
User Rank: Ninja
3/12/2013 | 5:24:27 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
Technology changes faster than corporations are willing to invest. Corporations are all grasshoppers not ants that prepare. When they decide its time to invest in new technology, most often their staff are NOT up to the task. Instead of investing in people, they'd rather raid overseas companies that do. Its very hard for the current staff to keep up to date on technology not used by the current employer and when the employer finally decides to upgrade there isn't enough time to retrain existing staff. They are disgraded for those that have the new technology skills.
User Rank: Strategist
3/12/2013 | 5:02:35 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
While I can't disagree with the technology portions, you still are missing the point.

When you have applied for all civil service jobs.
When you have applied for all private sector jobs.

And you can't buy a interview.

What do you suggest?

I ask because I believe the people that I hear from at Keep America at Work would like to know.
User Rank: Author
3/12/2013 | 4:21:50 PM
re: IT Age Discrimination: You're Not The Dinosaur
Jonathan makes some good points, yet I suspect some of his advice may not be very soothing for people who have never worked in a smaller company, never mind a startup. Running your own company, or even working at a startup, is not a fit for every personality.

There is no shame in saying you don't want to run your own company but you do want to work with a smart team at a small or midsize company. But if that's where you are at, your personal network will be crucial.

Laurianne McLaughlin
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