The world for older IT pros is in flux: Jobs have never felt so precarious, and retirement looks very different. The easy answers--such as retraining--aren't so easy.
His later-in-life career makeover has positioned him for the future, but it required sacrifices. For nearly two years, Straka was a resident student at Tulsa, taking five graduate-level classes at a time. Being so far from his family in Chicago was the biggest challenge, even more than readjusting to homework and tests. "Most of the time, I didn't have much else do to but study," he says. After his first semester, Straka had company: His older son enrolled in the same program.
Straka had to make a dramatic move, so he returned to college, joining the government-sponsored Cyber Corps.
Straka didn't have to face what's often a deal-breaker for people considering retraining: the cost. The government paid for everything, including tuition and room and board. The investment, which Straka estimates was about $60,000, would have been "a big hurdle" for Straka's family finances, he admits.
Financially, Straka now will be able to retire at 65 if he chooses. That's no small thing. People are living longer and healthier, and some want to work beyond age 65--but for others, IT pros included, work will be a necessity. Social Security faces long-term challenges, while more and more companies have cut their pension programs to stem losses, with the U.S. Department of Labor estimating that private pensions are underfunded by $450 billion. Toss in the fact that total household borrowing stands at a record $10 trillion, up from $5.1 trillion in 1997, according to the Cambridge Consumer Credit Index, and it's clear that a large swath of people are going to need to stay employed as long as they can.
The answers about how to do that aren't necessarily new, but they're not as black and white as they've often been presented either. Retraining, for instance, is just a piece of a bigger puzzle.
One challenge is that it's hard to get people to reach outside of their comfort zone unless they're forced to by external conditions, such as approaching layoffs, and by then it may be harder to do. IT pros, particularly those who've been doing the same type of work for a while, should take a page from the book of Larry Hamilton. As an IT director at a large automaker a few years back, Hamilton took company courses that included application development, IT architecture and infrastructure, and Web development. He wasn't required to take the training and didn't do work that used much of what he learned, but Hamilton wanted to keep his knowledge fresh. "The courses had a lot more technology than I needed to know, but they were very helpful," says Hamilton, who is a partner at Executive Search Partners LLC, a headhunting firm specializing in IT job placement in the Detroit area.
Polishing up skills and knowledge by attending industry conferences or getting training "on your own dime" are all good investments, says Jeri Sedlar, a speaker, researcher, and co-author of Don't Retire, Rewire! (Alpha Books, 2002). But training by itself isn't a panacea, says Dan DePrez, a 52-year-old IT professional who's been working in the industry since 1975. About five years ago, DePrez, whose career has included work on scientific systems, inventory control, database administration, and security, earned certifications in Microsoft and Cisco Systems technologies. Those newer skills can help "get you in the door, but [they don't] keep you there," says DePrez, who now consults.
Pressure is mounting on thousands of U.S. IT professionals who'll
hit retirement age in the next decade
Offshore outsourcing, corporate downsizing, and fast-changing technologies
are impacting job security
Older workers who are laid off have a tough time finding new jobs,
and those that do find work often take a pay cut
Meanwhile, Social Security, pensions, and 401(k)s are all being squeezed
The bottom line? Many IT pros in their 50s and 60s have to rewire
their careers to stay on track
What can give you an advantage? Not just having a certificate but demonstrating you actually can use those skills is a good start. The best way to do that is to get in on cutting-edge projects, which can position mid- or late-career workers to be considered for future assignments in the company rather than for a pink slip. The boss may not naturally think of someone who's spent years working with legacy Digital Equipment Corp. VAX systems to work on a job that requires a new skill set, even if that person has just been certified in Microsoft's .Net. That may mean volunteering for new projects and potentially partnering with or reporting to a Gen-X colleague, Sedlar says. If time permits, there also are opportunities for IT pros who can volunteer at nonprofits.
Of course, experienced IT pros should be valued on more than programming languages and certifications. The big-picture perspective they bring to the workplace--including business and decision-making skills--also are important, and they may need to market these assets. "Being a subject expert in something like supply chain is valuable, knowing all the business processes involved," Hamilton says. "Knowing how to code the supply-chain program is not as valuable." (For more on the coming talent gap as baby-boomers leave the IT workforce or are forced out of it, see story, Generation Gap: Who Will Step Up As IT Vets Retire?).
The good news is that even when taking these steps fails to secure an existing job or lead to new full-time employment, compared with other lines of work, such as marketing and human resources, "IT has a leg up in contract work," says Sedlar. "There's more flexibility for IT professionals transitioning into consulting work, including with a domestic-based outsourcing services firm." The bad news is a contract gig may not pay anything close to what seasoned IT pros used to make.
Best has seen both sides of the contractor's life. He took a buyout after the Bell Atlantic-Nynex merger nearly a decade ago and spent the next few years riding the 1990's high-tech wave, working as a well-paid full-time consultant for three large IT-services firms, specializing in telecom and customer-relationship management in the Philadelphia area. Then the wave crashed and much of the IT-services business dried up, leaving him unemployed.
His age has been a big factor in his difficulty finding full-time work, says Best, who has worked with mainframes, minicomputers, PCs, and telecom during a 30-year career. During the boom years, "I paid more in taxes than I'm getting paid now," he says. Best didn't have much luck even getting calls for IT job interviews until he reworked his resumé, downplaying or excluding information that might give away his age. "Leave out anything that's more than 10 years old," he advises. (For more on resumés, see story, Getting Resumé Writing Right).
Such experiences make it hard to put a positive spin on the outlook for older IT pros. But as the generation of people who built their careers in tandem with the tech industry's gestation and evolution, these veterans have plenty to draw from and to offer as they enter the final years of their IT careers. Just be prepared for some rewiring.
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