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Help Wanted: Older workers need not apply

September 14, 1998
Web posted at: 3:20 PM EDT

by Neal Weinberg


(IDG) -- Ed Curry has an eye-popping resume that includes fluency in seven computer languages, experience with all the major operating systems, an im-pressive work history and professional accomplishments galore. He wrote software that helped Microsoft win federal security certification for Windows NT, tested chips for Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, and helped develop IBM's OS/400 and OS/2 operating systems.

Curry ran his own test lab business from 1989 through 1996, when he closed up shop and went job hunting. His credentials gave him plenty of reason to believe his phone would be ringing off the hook. "I thought it was a slam-dunk," he says.

But for the past 20 months, Curry has been shooting nothing but air balls. None of the 2,000 rsums he's sent to companies in search of permanent, full-time employment has resulted in a single interview, unless you count the time a hiring manager called him just because he wanted to meet someone with Curry's experience in person.

Today, Curry, who lives in Georgetown, Texas, is barely making ends meet with a temporary contract job that ends this month. "And after that, God only knows. I've never been terrified of not having a job in my life, but I am now," he says.

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Given the highly publicized shortage of qualified IT workers, why aren't companies scrambling to hire him? Curry, who turns 40 next month, chalks it up to age discrimination.

According to the industry group Information Technology Association of America, an estimated 346,000 IT positions are unfilled these days, a situation the ITAA calls "a national labor shortage of historic proportions." But Curry and others in his age group charge that employers can find plenty of people if they abandon the biased perceptions that older workers are too expensive, lack the latest skills and present a cultural mismatch in the youth-oriented IT field.

Age does matter when it comes to IT hiring, according to a survey of 200 Network World readers with some degree of hiring responsibility. The survey clearly shows that younger network managers tend not to hire older workers.

Only 13% of the 30 survey respondents in the 20-30 age group hired anyone over 40 in the past year, but that percentage increased as the age of the hiring manager increased. Of the 80 network managers in the 31-40 age group, 24% had hired an over-40 person in the past year. The percentage rose to 39% for the 57 managers in the 41-50 age group and up to 45% for the 31 respondents over 50. (Two respondents refused to give their ages.)

When the network managers were asked if they had never hired someone over 40, the results again followed chronological lines. Among the 20- to 30-year-old respondents, 47% said they had never hired a person over 40. That figure was 39% for managers 31-40; 23% for managers 41-50 and 16% for those over 50.

The survey results don't surprise Kathy Nichol, who has 18 years' experience as a high-tech recruiter in the Dallas area. Nichol says she works with one thirtysomething hiring manager who gravitates toward "young fast-track managers." When Nichol has recommended older workers, her client rejected them, saying the candidate lacked energy, couldn't cut it in a fast-paced environment, or should have been further along careerwise. "He doesn't even recognize what he's doing," Nichol says.

Work culture promotes ageism

Going beyond the numbers, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the claim that the ideal IT job candidate is a single, male, new college graduate who knows Java and is willing to work 80 hours per week for entry-level pay. Curry points out that a 23-year-old who sat next to him at his contract job recently landed a full-time position, even though that person had only a fraction of Curry's know-how.

Jack Bobo, research director for the National Software Alliance (NSA), a Washington, D.C.-based consortium of industry, government and academic leaders concerned about the IT labor shortage, says companies are "trying desperately to hire entry-level people." The reason: Young workers are viewed as willing to put in longer hours for less money and are perceived to have the hot skills.

Conversely, older workers are seen as dinosaurs. Michael Schriner, 50, of Vacaville, Calif., is certified on NetWare 3.1 and 4.1 and has been working with a beta version of 5.0, which is scheduled for release this week. Schriner has seven years' experience maintaining a NetWare LAN at a large corporate site, but he has been out of permanent work since his company folded a year ago.

However, he hasn't been without interviews, most of which he describes as surreal nightmares. One time, he was left sitting in the lobby while several employees peeked into the lobby and "gave me the eyeball." Finally, someone came out and gave Schriner a quick tour of the building, then showed him the door without ever conducting an interview. During the quickie tour, Schriner was asked if he were willing to work 36 hours straight to solve a problem, the implication being that someone his age wouldn't be.

"At some places it was obvious to me that they were looking for somebody younger," he says.

Schriner just landed a temporary position for the next few months, but when that assignment ends, he'll be back on the job hunt.

In high tech, the definition of an older worker is far different than that in most other professional fields. "I'm hearing from a lot of people in their late 30s and early 40s who are feeling the crunch," says Paul Kostek, president of the U.S. chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). "Many have jobs, but if they're trying to find new positions, many are being frozen out. They're not even getting an opportunity to get an interview."

"The high-tech business is considered a young person's game," adds David Greenberg, a Beverly Hills attorney who specializes in age discrimination cases. A consumer shopping for a surgeon would probably feel more comfortable with someone 45 years old than with a young resident fresh out of medical school, Greenberg says. "But in high tech there's a reverse correlation; experience means you're not up to date."

Kostek says a potent mix of cultural and economic factors are working against older workers. Software companies and Internet start-ups, in particular, tend to be founded and run by young people who are simply more comfortable working with their peers. On top of that, companies figure someone with 20 years' experience will demand top dollar, so they hire the younger worker without ever determining the mid-career worker's salary requirements, Kostek says.

Job seeker Curry analyzes his situation this way: "When companies see my rsum, they either don't believe it and shred it or they believe it and automatically dismiss me as too expensive."

Quantifying the problem

Finding hard evidence to support claims of age discrimination in the computer industry is difficult. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 15,785 age discrimination complaints in 1997, roughly the same amount as in 1996. But the federal agency doesn't break down the numbers by industry or occupation, and it rejected 61% of those complaints for lack of reasonable cause.

And the legal definition of age discrimination is a moving target. The California Court of Appeals recently ruled that a company can fire an older, higher-paid worker and hire a younger, less-expensive worker as long as the decision is based on cost-cutting and not on a particular bias against people over 40. Advocates for older workers say the ruling makes it much more difficult for plaintiffs to win age-bias suits.

However, there are statistics that seem to indicate age bias. A 1997 breakdown by age of college graduates in the U.S. work force shows that 37% of these workers were 45 and older. But among computer scientists and programmers, only 23% were 45 and older. The numbers are even more striking in the over-55 age group, which constituted 12% of the total college-educated U.S. work force but only 5% of the IT field, according to a report by the NSA.

Daniel Gerard has had the grand tour of numerous Silicon Valley companies over the past couple of years as part of his unsuccessful effort to find a programming job. "No one has been older than me," says the 40-year-old. "Where are the 50- and 60-year-old engineers? I'm not seeing them, and that's scary."

Bobo, who compiled the work force numbers, says one explanation is that the computer industry is a young field to begin with, so one wouldn't expect to find as many older workers. And by the time programmers hit mid-career, they typically move into management positions.

Another explanation, of course, is that older workers are being eased or pushed out the door.

On the defensive

Harris Miller, president of the ITAA, says the fact that a handful of vocal mid-career people say they can't find jobs doesn't prove age discrimination. It may mean those particular people lack up-to-date skills, have inflexible salary demands, or aren't willing to relocate to areas where the jobs are.

The bottom line, Miller says, is that "companies are so desperate for employees that they'll hire anybody regardless of age."

Tracy Koon, director of corporate communications at Intel, flatly denies that age bias plays any role at the fast-growing chip maker. She says it makes no sense for the company to try to ease out older workers: "We invest huge amounts of money in training our employees; why would we want to lose them?"

And Kenneth Mockler, director of worldwide staffing at EMC in Hopkinton, Mass., says the company hired 1,400 people last year, including many mid-career workers from the nearby Digital division of Compaq. "It's so hard to find senior qualified talent," he says.

Koon says the average age of the Intel employee has remained flat over the past three years, moving from 36 in 1996 to 36.4 in 1997 to 36.3 in the first quarter of 1998. She argues that with all the hiring Intel has done, if it were systematically dumping older workers and replacing them with 23-year-olds, the average age would be dropping.

"We've tried to look at [age discrimination] very seriously. We just have not found it," Koon says.

A similar analysis of the average age of all computer professionals, conducted by the NSA, shows an increase from 35.5 in 1989 to 37.8 in 1997. The NSA's Bobo says the numbers prove companies are hiring older workers as well as younger workers.

The challenge to find work

Demographics and statistics are small consolation to Kathy Nolan, 50, of Riverdale, N.J., who has a degree in business with a minor in computer science and 25 years' experience as a software programmer. She has kept her skills current, moving from the mainframe world of COBOL and DB2 to the client/server arena with Power-Builder to Web technologies.

Her systems analyst position was eliminated one year ago, and she has been without work since, except for a temporary contract job that ends when a woman who's on maternity leave returns to work. Nolan says the job search is a frustrating process in which age bias plays a major role. "Over the phone they're enthusiastic, but when they see you and realize you're older, they say, 'Oh, boy.'"

But to Steve Patchell, senior consultant at the management consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide, headquartered in Bethesda, Md., the issue is not age; it's whether an employee has up-to-date skills in an industry notorious for the rapidity with which entire skill sets become obsolete.

Companies are desperate to find "plug-and-play" workers, and Patchell says companies don't care whether potential employees are 28 or 52, as long as they can hit the ground running. On the other hand, "if you don't get the skills, you're essentially road kill," he says.

Job seeker Gerard went out and got the right skills, and he's still road kill. A former musician, he earned an associate's degree in computer science from De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif. While in school, he did an internship with NASA.

"I did the right thing, I went back to school, I followed through correctly, I worked for NASA, and then poof, it went downhill from there. I had a couple of temp jobs that combined didn't last more than nine months in 1995 and 1996 and that was it. I haven't worked since the end of 1996."

He has sent out more than 300 rsums and continues the job hunt, but frustration is setting in. "It's a tear-jerker. I'm earning zero. I'm an adult, educated person," Gerard says. "It's unthinkable to me that anyone could be in this situation."

Gerard is convinced that his age is working against him. Although companies try to mask it, sometimes the reaction of a hiring manager gives the game away. "When I walk in sometimes, I get a red-faced reaction," he says.

He argues that employers shouldn't be swayed by his chronological age. "I'm no longer a 40-year-old; inside I'm 25. I've truly changed as a person and re-educated myself." However, he says employers have fixed expectations and believe young engineers are the best hope for their companies.

Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against Gerard, recruiter Nichol says. Companies don't want to hire older workers for entry-level jobs because they don't want a 40-year-old reporting to a 24-year-old. "It's a cultural thing,'' she says. Naturally, the company won't come right out and say age bias is coming into play, but managers will come up with some other reason not to hire that person, she says.

Companies are demanding people who match up perfectly with the job description and have direct experience in the particular skill required, Nichol adds.

But job-hunting mid-career professionals argue that those requirements are sometimes impossible for anyone to meet. For example, this job description appears on the Web site of Advanced Computer Resources, a Florida-based recruitment company:

Candidates must have a broad exposure to a variety of technologies and concepts in a client/server environment including: Enterprisewide solutions, Application Architectures and Software, Distributed Client/Server Architectures, Large Systems Delivery, Internet/ Intranet Development, Electronic Commerce (Java, Hot Java), Windows NT, C, C++, Unix, SQL, Oracle, Sybase, Informix, Visual Basic, PowerBuilder and leading projects using formal methodologies.

And the job requires travel between 90% and 100% of the time.

"They're looking for somebody who shows up wearing blue, long underwear and a red blanket tied around his neck . . . Superman," complains job seeker Schriner. But after a year without a job, his situation is no laughing matter. "If something doesn't pop pretty quick, I'm going to have to find another way to pay the bills," he says.

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