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Midcareer Crisis

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.

Three years ago, Rich Straka packed his bags and moved 700 miles away from his family to study computer security at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. Sounds like just another story about a kid off to college. Except instead of leaving behind Mom and Dad for four years of frat parties, Straka left his own home, a wife, and two sons. Pushing 50 and with only a part-time job, Straka had to start rethinking his career.

After putting in 20-plus years at AT&T Bell Labs and then Lucent Technologies in demanding positions such as being the architect of a computing environment used by 6,000 software developers, who could blame Straka if he had looked forward to mixing work with a little more pleasure time as he entered the zenith of his career? Instead, he felt compelled to accept an early retirement package in July 2001, when Lucent, like other telecom-equipment suppliers, retrenched in the wake of the Internet and telecom-industry bust. He didn't want to leave but worried that his pension benefits would be a lot less lucrative if he stuck it out and then later became a victim of layoffs. The post-9/11 job market in Chicago wasn't rife with other opportunities, though, and Straka knew he had to make a major move. "It was an opportunity I needed to go after," he says.

Across the country, thousands of seasoned IT pros have faced similar career upheavals, or could in the near future. It's happening to their younger counterparts, too, as offshore outsourcing, corporate downsizing, and fast-changing technologies shatter the myth of job stability. Just this month, the Walt Disney Co. disclosed plans to cut about 1,000 IT jobs and outsource the work to other companies. For those IT pros in the second half of their careers--and the latest data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates there are about 301,000 who are 55 and older--the possibility of having to change gears amid these conditions presents unique challenges.

Age has been a factor making it difficult to find full-time work, Best says.

Age has been a factor making it difficult to find full-time work, Best says.

Photo by David Deal
Eleven percent of the nation's 3.4 million IT professionals--including IS managers, programmers, systems analysts, and database administrators--will reach retirement age during the next 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But instead of confidently moving forward in their careers, many are concerned about the threat of unemployment before they're ready to leave the workforce--and with that comes psychological stresses, the prospect of going back to school and worries about age discrimination in the workplace. "Some younger people have the attitude that older people 'don't know anything' because they assume the technologies they've worked with are old and irrelevant now," says Geoffrey Best, a 58-year-old independent consultant who was an IT director at Bell Atlantic until the company's merger with Nynex in 1996. At home, older IT pros face the reality of having less time before retirement to boost 401(k) accounts depleted by the economic downturn of the early 2000s.

Today, after two years of specialized education, Straka is just back to earning about what he made at the time he left Lucent. For some IT veterans, if they lose their jobs, they may never get back to the wages they were once making. While there isn't IT-specific research, a Bureau of Labor Statistics study covering 2001 to 2003 found that a majority of workers who were laid off didn't return to the pay levels they lost. The study found that 57% of long-tenured workers--those with more than three years on the job--who were working full-time in January 2004 were earning lower wages than before being laid off. One-third lost 20% or more of their pay.

IT unemployment is low today--about 4%--but that doesn't necessarily translate into meaningful opportunities for people who have been axed. Looking at 6,531 managerial and professional workers laid off between 2001 and 2003, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found one in five still unemployed in January 2004; 11% had left the workforce entirely.

Predictably, older workers have the toughest time. Sixty-nine percent of people ages 25 to 54 who lost jobs in 2001 to 2003 were re-employed when interviewed in January 2004, but just 56% in the 55 to 64 range were employed, and 20% had dropped out of the labor force. The problem is likely exacerbated in the IT industry. "More so than other industries, the tech field is a young field," says John Challenger, CEO of executive search firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "There's no question that older IT professionals face additional obstacles, but they aren't insurmountable."

Work Or PlaySteve Janigian's experience shows just how difficult bypassing those obstacles can be. He landed a job six weeks ago as an IT project specialist at a security equipment company after being out of work more than two years. He suspects his age--now 54--played a big role in his difficulty finding work. "Most of the hiring managers were in their mid to late 30s, maybe early 40s," and many were "looking for younger, cheaper" job candidates, he says. To look for work, Janigian a year ago moved from Akron, Ohio, to Fresno, Calif., where he grew up, and he lived with his mother while his wife and four kids stayed in Ohio. The new job is a blessing, but a mixed one. The pay is decent, but it's not as much as what he was making as an IT project manager back in Ohio, California is a lot more expensive, and his wife is miserable living so far from her own hometown. Not that they'd have a house to go back to there--the bank foreclosed on the family's mortgage.

Mention IT job jitters, and "retraining" pops to the lips as the ready answer. But moving into a hot skill area--like security--is tougher than it sounds.

Looking back, Straka says he made the right decision to enroll in Tulsa's government computer-security program, commonly known as Cyber Corps, which was launched during the Clinton administration and has grown larger as a result of 9/11. He graduated in 2003 and got a job as a security architect for the Department of Defense in Maryland, where he relocated. "National security, that's not something you can outsource offshore," he says.

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