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Many older IT workers are fishing for jobs despite labor shortage

July 23, 1998
Web posted at: 2:45 PM EDT

by Margaret Steen

(IDG) -- While IT departments across the country boost salaries, add innovative benefits, and redouble their recruiting efforts in an attempt to find qualified staff members, some older IT workers are feeling left out of the boom. Underneath all the arguments about the extent of the skills shortage and how to solve it, one thing is clear: Companies say they can't find IT workers who meet their needs -- yet some older IT workers are struggling with their job searches.

Observers of the job market and those in the field give many reasons for some employers' reluctance to hire older workers. Some are valid, but others are based on questionable assumptions.

One 45-year-old IT professional, who recently took a job as a product planner with a large software company on the West Coast, said a recruiter told him during his three-month job search that he had been turned down for a job because the company "wanted someone younger."

"The recruiter told me it was off the record, and of course the employer would never admit to having said that," the product planner says. "I'll never forget that."

This IT professional says this was the only time during his job search that he felt discriminated against due to his age. His experience is one reason that it is hard to quantify the extent of bias against older IT workers: Many older workers are able to find good jobs in the current market.

In fact, in the 1998 InfoWorld Compensation Survey, which polled more than 2,250 InfoWorld readers, almost 10 percent of respondents 55 and older reported having moved to a new company in the past year. Another 11 percent had moved within the past two or three years.

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The product planner's experience also illustrates the way in which assumptions about older workers may play out in the job market. For example, both older workers and younger managers may be daunted by the idea of a staff member working for a manager who could be his daughter. Almost half of the InfoWorld reader survey's respondents younger than 30 years old said they were managers, and more than one in five of the respondents older than 50 years were staff members.

"It definitely happens that you end up working for somebody half your age, so you have to present yourself as somebody who can be comfortable in that circumstance," says Joyce Plotkin, president of the Massachusetts Software Council, in Boston.

Another frequently cited reason for older workers' trouble finding jobs is the perception that they don't have the energy and commitment of younger workers.

"They don't consider people of my age to have the drive to work in the computer industry anymore," says a 48-year-old security specialist who until recently worked at a business services company on the East Coast. He interviewed once for a job that involved traveling one week per month.

"They asked me if I could handle the grind," the security specialist says. "I said, `I don't use a cane. I coach high school football.'"

This response, although putting to rest one concern about older workers, may well have raised another: Because of family and other commitments, older workers are perceived as less willing to work long hours than younger workers.

However, InfoWorld's survey found that the average number of hours worked per week was high but remarkably consistent: 48 hours for every age group.

"I think there's a misconception that high tech, and start-ups in particular, requires some level of commitment that only very young people are willing to put into them," says the product planner. "I've worked with people and had people work for me at all age ranges who have shown incredible dedication."

"There's not a job out there where you don't work really hard and put in a lot of time," says a former IT manager at a New York telecommunications company, who has more than 25 years of experience and is just beginning a job search. "All jobs today require that kind of commitment."

Seeking an exact match

It's possible for older workers to use interviews to dispel the notion that they aren't as flexible, energetic, or committed as their younger competition. (See "Age bias in IT can be overcome," Jan. 19, page 85.) But in some cases, observers say, older workers don't even get interviewed because they lack the precise set of skills and experience that employers are looking for. Employers and observers offer many reasons for this gap, some more legitimate than others.

"The most sought-after person has three to 10 years of experience -- they're not highly paid yet -- and they've got a lot of education in the latest tools and OSes," says Bill Schaefer, president of Schaefer & Associates, in Melbourne, Fla.

Is it age discrimination when an employer turns down someone because they have too much experience? The answer is maybe.

Some reasons for not hiring "overqualified" workers could be legitimate -- they want too high a salary, for example, or the employers have reason to worry that they won't stick with the job for long, according to Stephen Befort, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, in Minneapolis.

"But it's probably not a very wise practice for employers to approach it in that vein," Befort says. Along with other facts, this could be used against an employer in an age discrimination case.

Often the issue of whether someone is overqualified really is one of salary.

"I'd love to have somebody with 20 years of experience, but unfortunately I'm only paying for three or four," says the IT director at a large law firm on the West Coast.

However, this legitimate reason for choosing one worker over another can also mask a discriminatory assumption.

"They're expecting me to come in and demand a big salary, and I'm not," says the security specialist, who took early retirement from a previous job and so doesn't need to make as much money as he once did.

InfoWorld's Compensation Survey found that on average, older workers earn higher salaries than younger ones, even for similar jobs. The salary gap was larger between older and younger senior managers than for staff members, suggesting that years of management experience are more valuable to employers than many years of technical experience. But legal experts caution that these generalizations shouldn't be turned into employment policies.

"If you've got a situation where an older worker declines an offer absent more money, I don't think there's any problem with the employer taking the lower-paid applicant," Befort says. "But if an employer says, `We don't hire older people because we assume that they'll cost more,' that's probably age discrimination."

Matching their qualifications with what employers are looking for is another challenge for some older workers.

The security specialist, whose last job search lasted two years, found that his associate's degree, additional college coursework, and more than 30 years of IT experience frequently did not compensate for his lack of a four-year diploma.

However, although this could be a significant handicap for the workers who don't have degrees, InfoWorld's survey found that the percent of respondents with at least a bachelor's degree was about the same -- about 75 percent -- for all age groups.

A more daunting problem to some may be a lack of experience with the latest tools -- either because the workers have been using older technology or because they have moved up the ranks into management.

"Right now, the market is calling for hands-on technical people," says Bernie Wekar, vice president of the Cambridge Group, in Westport, Conn. "Somebody who's been a vice president of IS for 25 years probably has been a couple of layers removed from the technical stuff."

To counter these problems, the former telecommunications company IT manager recommends emphasizing skills instead of years of experience.

"People are not interested so much in the depth of your experience as in the immediate skill sets that they need right now," she says. "I believe that more mature workers really have to repackage themselves to focus on the marketplace today."

Taking risks

Some observers -- and in particular some older workers -- say companies need to expand their definition of a qualified employee and be more willing to retrain workers.

"The problem that most companies have is that they're not being creative and aren't looking long-term," says Jay Berger, president of Pathway Executive Search, in New York. "There's a notion out there that people who have learned a skill and maintained that skill for years and years can't adapt or learn a new one."

Berger says companies often overlook the fact that some workers nearing the end of their careers may not be looking for the constant growth that younger workers want and so may not be as likely to jump ship after a short time. He has also been encouraging companies to look outside of their industry for candidates.

"There is a hesitancy to undertake the risk that comes with being creative," Berger says.

Finally, some say a recommitment to training programs could help solve the problem. There is a dearth of programs, for example, aimed specifically at teaching former mainframe programmers new skills. (For more on training, see "The training imperative," June 22, page 78.) But even if someone with 20 years of Cobol experience takes a Visual Basic class, it doesn't guarantee that they will qualify for a job.

"I wouldn't hire them because they would not have the skill set," says the law firm's IT director. "Although this person has a wealth of experience in general data processing, they don't know my applications. I couldn't expect them to leap in. I mean this too for the kid that just got out of college -- it applies to anyone."

Those pushing companies to expand their horizons point to the benefits of having people with years of experience on your staff.

"This industry is 25 years old, so we don't have a lot of people that have a lot of management experience," Plotkin says of the software industry. "In many of the very young, fast-growing companies, people with a depth of management experience can be viewed very positively."

Margaret Steen edits InfoWorld's Enterprise Careers section.
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