Article 43


Monday, October 17, 2011

Age Bias In IT


The reality behind the rumors
Is high tech really that tough on older workers? Or are they simply not pulling their weight in an industry that never stops innovating?

By Tam Harbert
September 1, 2011

Age bias: Some consider it IT’s dirty little secret, or even IT’s big open secret. 

Most high-tech employers would likely deny that AGE DISCRIMINATION is an issue AT THEIR COMPANY. But many IT workers over 50 BEG TO DIFFER, saying they have experienced age bias or know someone who has.

The bias can take several forms, they say. Their salaries might stagnate. They might have few or no opportunities for advancement. They might not be included in training and professional development programs. And they could be the first to be laid off and the last to be hired.

As a result, they may be hit harder by the recession. According to recent U.S. government data, unemployment rates for older IT professionals increased faster than they did for younger tech workers since the recession began some three years ago.

All of that can add up to a tough road for older people in high tech.

Age bias is “something that no [employer] talks about. But it’s a reality in tech that if you’re 45 years of age and still writing C code or Cobol code and making $150,000 a year, the likelihood is that you won’t be employed very long,” says Vivek Wadhwa, who currently holds academic positions at several universities, including UC Berkeley, Duke and Harvard.

As Wadhwa’s observation indicates, “age bias” is a simplistic label for a complicated set of factors that influence the job prospects for senior tech employees. When considering workers over the age of 50, employers take the following factors into account:

· The relevance, applicability and currency of their skills, which may or may not be up to par with those of younger employees.

· The level of compensation they expect, which is typically higher than the salaries younger people seek.

· Their behaviors and attitudes, which can become rigid and narrow-minded with age.

· Their energy level, which is presumed to be less than that of a 25-year-old.

While none of these generalizations is necessarily true for any particular candidate, each is a stereotypical assumption about older workers. What’s more, they are all logical and legal reasons for an employer to fire, or not hire, someone.

“If you can hire someone fresh out of college for $60,000 who is likely to know the latest technology, or you can hire someone 45 years old who’s making $140,000, who are you going to hire? That’s the harsh reality, whether we like it or not,” says Wadhwa, 53, who started his career in IT as a programmer, then went on to be an entrepreneur before entering academia.

Robert Ayr hears that message loud and clear. At 57, he’s fully and happily employed in IT as the manager of production services at Irving, Texas-based VHA Inc., a national network of not-for-profit healthcare organizations. He gives himself credit for managing his career well through turbulent times, but at the same time, he can’t help but look over his shoulder.

By his own estimate, since he graduated college in 1977, Ayr has held nine or 10 technology positions all over the country—in California, Massachusetts, Texas and New York. “Especially in the beginning, I was moving around all over the place—to expand my knowledge base and to further my career,” he says.

As he got older, he moved less and stayed in positions longer, but always took care to keep his skills fresh, moving from mainframes to VMS to his current specialty, servers. “I say every 10 years it’s time to retool,” he explains. “I keep trying to learn as much as I can, otherwise you become a dinosaur.”

Even so, Ayr acknowledges that the climate begins to change as the years of experience add up. He tells the story of being passed over for a job several years ago in favor of a candidate who had nearly the exact same credentials as he did but was 20 years younger.

“I ran into the guy a couple months later at a users’ group meeting, and I asked him right up front what kind of money they were paying him. The bottom line is, he was willing to work for less. That’s what happens.”

“I was always the youngest person wherever I went; now I’m one of the oldest,” Ayr says. “You still picture yourself as the 30-year-old hotshot, but the reality is you’re not that guy anymore.”

Older workers by the numbers

What do we know about the aging workforce in the United States, and about older tech workers in particular?

For starters, more older Americans are remaining in the workforce. Last year, the percentage of people age 55 and older in the workforce reached 40%, its highest level in 35 years, according to a study published in February 2011 by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. And that’s after the 2008-2009 recession, when many older workers lost their jobs.

But are older IT professionals remaining in the workforce? Hard numbers are difficult to find; the data that is available is sparse and sometimes inconsistent. Studies of older workers rarely break out their results by profession. Recruiting firms offer data on hiring, and sometimes salaries, by profession, but typically don’t break it down by age.

Other studies track unemployment, but not by age or profession—so it’s difficult to know how many older tech workers want work but can’t find it. The picture is further muddied when companies outsource and offshore IT jobs, as well as import workers through the H-1B and other visa programs, which could displace U.S. workers, including older employees.

Add the fact that a segment of IT professionals voluntarily bails out at a certain age, either for another career or to start their own business, and you can see why researchers find the topic difficult to quantify.

One set of data that does bring several of these factors together comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The agency released numbers in early 2011 that show that older IT workers have higher rates of unemployment than both younger IT workers and older workers in other professions.

In the category of “computer and mathematical occupations,” the overall unemployment rate for people 55 and over jumped from 6% to 8.4% from 2009 to 2010, according to the data. For those 25 to 54 years old in that job category, the unemployment rate fell from 5.1% in 2009 to 4.5% in 2010.

Those figures are particularly striking when compared to the overall population, where 55-plus workers had lower unemployment rates (7%) than the 25-to-54-year olds (8.5%) in 2010.

That trend seems to be reflected in the level of anxiety among older IT workers who still have jobs. According to the latest Computerworld salary survey, the number of IT people feeling somewhat or very insecure rises steadily as they age.

As to the flat-lining of wages that’s rumored to sometimes happen in the second half of a high-tech career, Computerworld’s survey didn’t turn up evidence of age bias in actual salaries, but employees aged 55 and older were the most likely to report that they had generally “lost ground financially” in the past two years.

An academic study of IT salaries published in 2008 did show interesting disparities in IT salary by age in three specific industry segments—finance, IT and medical. Although the report is now out of date—it was based on data from 2001—at least one of the original researchers believes its findings still hold true.

“The slow economic recovery and the stubborn high unemployment rate we have right now only make age discrimination even more pronounced,” says Jing Quan, an associate professor at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Md. “IT companies are more likely to value IT workers who have the most updated skill sets and can get the job done,” he says. “And those are more likely younger IT workers.”

Keep up or keep out

The hyper-accelerated pace of change in high technology makes it a particularly challenging field to keep up with. Put bluntly: “The special characteristics of the IT industry—highly competitive, fast-paced, short skill update cycle—do not favor older workers,” says Quan.

Julie McMullin, a professor at Canada’s University of Western Ontario, elaborates. “Perceptions of older, in this particular industry, have a lot to do with competing demands,” says McMullin, who leads an international project called Workforce Aging in the New Economy (WANE) that studies aging and workforce restructuring in the IT industry.

“If you’re an unencumbered worker”—that is, single with lots of time to work extra hours and attend training to update your skills—“then you’re ‘young,’” she says.

By those standards, Ronda Henning could pass for a spring chicken. In real-life years, she’s 53, but by her own estimate has logged enough extra hours and obtained enough degrees to give younger workers a run for their money.

A senior scientist specializing in security at Harris Corp., a communications and IT company based in Melbourne, Fla., Henning has earned several graduate degrees to supplement her undergraduate degree (a B.A. in English writing nonfiction and political science from the University of Pittsburgh). She holds an MBA from the Florida Institute of Technology and an M.S. in computer science from Johns Hopkins University, and she’s currently working toward a Ph.D. in information systems.

Beyond that, Henning has taken care to invest in her career on her own time—publishing and presenting papers at conferences and identifying and pursuing new business initiatives within her organization. “Often that has to happen on your own time, in addition to your standard assignments,” she warns.

And then there’s the constant influx of the new, and the challenge of separating signal from noise. “I make a conscious effort to stay current, but these days, it’s very hard to absorb everything and figure out what’s truly important,” Henning acknowledges. “It can become a 24-hour-a-day job to try and do that.”

To be sure, IT isn’t the only profession in which older workers are vulnerable if they haven’t kept their skills up to date. Administrative assistants who don’t know the latest office productivity software, or journalists who don’t have multimedia skills, for example, are in the same boat.

In fact, as technology pervades more and more professions, the pressure to keep up with the pace of change is affecting a wider swath of the population, especially baby boomers who are reluctant, or unable, to retire.

“It’s the same thing everywhere, except in IT it happens faster,” says Wadhwa. “In IT, you’re at the epicenter of the earthquake in technologies.”

Hot jobs vs. no jobs

Certain types of IT jobs appear less susceptible to ageism than others. Systems architects and project managers, for example, are relatively safe, observers agree, as are IT employees with highly specialized skills such as scientific programming or mobile application development, provided those skills remain in demand.

And management can be a safe haven for aging IT folks who have people skills. Quan’s research showed that, in management if not elsewhere, older IT workers made higher salaries than the under-40 set.

These days, companies seem more willing to hire older IT executives than they were five to 10 years ago, says Steve B. Watson, a managing director at executive recruiting firm Stanton Chase. Companies “need someone who can hit the ground running,” he says. “There’s less interest in giving a honeymoon period to a newcomer, less time for training than there was in the past.” In addition, he sees a talent gap in management, probably created by the fact that baby boomers are starting to retire.

Likewise, companies are willing to look at older workers who come ready-made with skills the organization needs. For example, Axcelis Technologies, a maker of semiconductor capital equipment, needs professionals with highly specific skills—including physicists, experts in robotics and programmers with expertise in FORTH—says Lynnette Fallon, executive vice president of human resources and legal at the Beverly, Mass.-based company. “Sometimes it’s hard for us to find people who are good at this software,” she says.

Fallon doesn’t see any negatives to hiring older people. Because they are mature and experienced, they can mentor younger staffers, and mentoring is “the best kind of training,” she says. Experienced professionals do cost more, she acknowledges, which means the company must weigh the cost of hiring veteran workers against the benefits they offer. “You obviously need a balance in the workforce,” she says.

Too old to code?

In contrast, programmers who are over 40 can face a bleak future—particularly if they didn’t get on the management track or didn’t keep their skills up to date. “In some IT departments, you could hang on till the company gets into trouble,” says Wadhwa, “but when it does, you’ll be the first to go.”

When McMullin has interviewed people for the WANE project, some respondents have talked in negative terms about those who were “too old to code,” she says. “People would be giving us these descriptions of ZZ Top-looking programmers sitting in the back corner working in Cobol.”

The difficulty for programmers is twofold: For one thing, the desired skills keep changing and changing again, requiring them to refresh their talents on a nearly continuous basis. And, unlike managers, programmers often don’t have a clear career path within an organization.

Dennis O’Connor is one programmer who, through a combination of hard work and lucky breaks, has managed to hang on in high tech without taking the management track. O’Connor is 72 and still working, most currently as a programmer/analyst for the Alexandria, Va., city government.

O’Connor started out at Blue Cross of Virginia in 1965 as a computer operator on a Honeywell 400 mainframe. He moved on to programming Cobol on a 360-30 mainframe, and spent some years in banking before moving into municipal government—a sector that high-tech industry watchers consistently identify as being more accepting of older workers than its corporate counterparts.

He was hired by the city of Alexandria 11 years ago to service a Cobol-based payroll system, with the understanding that the system was scheduled to be phased out within a year and a half (but that has yet to happen, O’Connor points out with some amusement).

During a reorganization several years into his tenure that left O’Connor without a clear next step, a higher-up put him in a management position, but it wasn’t to O’Connor’s liking. “Supervision is not my thing. Over the course of my career, I have not been happy with it,” he says. “Any time I could get out of it, I did. I do so much better as a programmer/analyst.”

So he talked his way into a job on the Windows client-server side of the house, supporting the city’s Tidemark Permit Plan system for users in various departments using SQL Server and Crystal Reports—a job he now loves. “It was totally alien to me. I had to figure out what in the world I was doing,” O’Connor recalls.

“I’m sure there was some apprehension on the part of my manager that I was being dumped on them, but as it turns out, he has been more or less pleased,” he says. “Crystal Reports is a far cry from Cobol, but in the end, logic is logic.”

Loyal no more

If high-tech watchers and older workers agree on anything, it’s that the onus is squarely on IT employees to keep themselves current and capable. They shouldn’t expect the industry to behave as if it owes them anything.

Traditional loyalty has disappeared on both sides over the last 30 years—companies in general are no longer paternalistic, and workers don’t think twice about jumping ship when they get a better offer.

Still, there are some glimmers of hope for understanding between older workers and hiring companies. Michael T. Abbene, who in 2009 retired as CIO from St. Louis-based Arch Coal, believes “companies still have a responsibility to make training available and encourage people to update their skills.”

And on the corporate side, there are operational reasons for companies to consider retaining their older workers. “There is a need for institutional memory, even in a fast-moving field,” Abbene argues.

As a founder of two software companies, Wadhwa had no problem hiring older workers—albeit at salaries that were 20% lower than they had made in previous positions. “For the price, they were a much better value,” he says.

He recommends that approach to other employers. “It makes economic sense. They have more experience and they are more steady—they won’t leave you,” he says.

Wadhwa, like many others, believes there is value in the maturity, experience and even keel typical of many older workers. If it’s just not as high a value as they’d like, well, that’s the state of the market circa 2011.

Aging gracefully in IT

You may not be able to turn back the clock, but there are a few things you can do to increase the likelihood of getting a job and staying employed as you age.

Step 1 is recognizing that your skills have a certain shelf life. Rather than fight it, IT professionals should consider that when planning their careers.

In fact, Vivek Wadhwa believes that colleges should tell computer science and engineering students that “between age 40 and 45 you’ll hit your peak, so plan for it.”

That could mean saving a substantial part of your salary when you’re young, so you’ll be able to earn less and still get by in IT as you age or use the savings as a cushion if you change careers, says Wadhwa, who started his career in IT as a programmer, then went on to be an entrepreneur before entering academia.

Here are lists of things you should and shouldn’t do if you hope to stay in IT:


· Keep your skills up to date, even if your employer doesn’t pay for professional development.

· Consider moving into IT management, where longevity and experience are more likely to be seen as positives rather than negatives.

· Take advantage of a technical career path, if your company offers one. Some corporations have a dual-track system that allows technical folks to move up a ladder that’s comparable to the one managers climb, says Paul Ingevaldson, who spent 40 years in IT and retired from his job as CIO of Ace Hardware in 2004.

· Build and maintain a professional network independent of your current position so that you have lots of contacts to tap if you’re laid off or you decide to start a consulting business.

· Learn how to use social media to promote yourself, research potential employers and find current employees to refer you for jobs.

· Dress like your co-workers. Dress codes vary widely from company to company and from job function to job function, but in general you should aim to dress like your colleagues. If they’re wearing shirtsleeves, your Dr. Who T-shirt probably isn’t appropriate.


Act bored or tired either at your job or during an interview. That feeds into stereotypical assumptions about age.

Come off as a know-it-all. While decades of experience are valuable, employers are wary of narrow-mindedness in candidates who think they know exactly how things should be done. “You must be flexible to new ways of working and to a new culture,” says Steve B. Watson, a managing director at executive recruiting firm Stanton Chase.



Age bias in IT: Should you sue?
Age discrimination lawsuits aren’t easy to endure, but they can be won. Here’s what you need to know.

By Tam Harbert and Tracy Mayor
September 1, 2011

Age discrimination complaints are on the rise. In the last 10 years, according to figures from the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the number of age discrimination charges filed with the commission rose from roughly 16,000 in 2000 to more than 23,000 in 2010.

And lawyers and employment specialists say the number of lawsuits is up dramatically as well.

While the EEOC doesn’t break out statistics specifically for IT, there’s no indication the tech industry isn’t experiencing its fair share of legal wrangling. Just this month, high-tech giant 3M agreed to pay $3 million to former employees and adopt preventive measures after the EEOC filed a lawsuit charging that the company laid off hundreds of employees over the age of 45 with the intention of making way for younger workers.

And consumer tech darlings Apple and Google are both currently enmeshed in age-discrimination lawsuits as well.

In October of 2010, a former employee of an Apple retail store in Orlando filed suit against the company, alleging that his managers routinely ignored and denied his requests for promotion and instead promoted younger workers with less seniority and fewer qualifications. He was 60 years old at the time he was hired. The case is still pending.

And Brian Reid, who had been hired as Google’s director of operations in 2002 at age 52, filed suit against the company after he was fired in 2004, claiming he was commonly referred to as “old man” and an “old fuddy-duddy” and was told he was not a “cultural fit.”

The case was dismissed by a Santa Clara County judge 2005, but an appeals court reinstated it in 2007, a ruling that was upheld by the California Supreme Court in 2010. The case is now cleared to proceed to a jury trial, though no date has been set.

Getting an age discrimination case in front of a jury means the plaintiff has a good chance of winning, or successfully settling, the suit, says Robert Ottinger, a partner in the New York office of The Ottinger Firm PC, a law firm that specializes in employment law but is not involved in the lawsuits mentioned above.

A 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Gross v. FBL Financial Services, raised the bar for age discrimination cases, saying that plaintiffs, and not the companies being sued, bear the burden of proving a dismissal or reassignment of duties was due to age and not some other factor. But even so, Ottinger says, jurors often react more to the “story” of the suit. “You get [a case] in front of a jury, and the jurors think, ‘We know what’s going on here,’” he explains.

What’s more, the Gross decision only applies to the federal Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA). Ottinger says that when he works on an age discrimination suit, he usually uses state laws, most of which are much stronger than the federal statute and carry easier burdens of proof.

The best-case scenario, says Ottinger, is when he’s able to show a pattern of discriminatory behavior by the employer: If a company laid off mostly older workers and then hired a bunch of recent college graduates a few months later, for example. (In fact, under the a 1990 amendment to the ADEA, when employers undergo restructurings, lay people off or offer early retirement plans, they are required to provide information about the ages of both terminated and retained employees.)

Ottinger insists that age discrimination suits are “very winnable.” But statements like that trouble Laurie McCann, a senior attorney at AARP Foundation, a charitable arm of senior advocacy group AARP that’s focused on helping people 50 years and older meet their basic needs.

McCann says it’s essential that older workers have a clear-eyed view of the litigation process before they decide to sue. “Any large employer is likely to retain a large law firm with tons of associates who will try to ‘paper’ you to death,” McCann warns. “They’ll depose you, they’ll make a motion to dismiss, they’ll make a motion for summary judgment. You need to be prepared for that.

“Filing a lawsuit is expensive, in terms of the financial cost and the emotional toll,” McCann explains. “And it’s not just you. If you’re married or have kids, everyone is going to be impacted.” She emphasizes that she’s not saying older workers should never sue, only that they should be sure that they’ve taken the following steps before they file a lawsuit.

Step 1. Take preventive measures to ensure that managers have no reason to find fault with your work, says McCann. That means making sure your skills are up to date (a particular challenge in IT, McCann acknowledges), volunteering for new projects and extra assignments, taking advantage of any training the company offers, letting your superiors know you’re interested in promotions and in general working to counter any stereotypes about older workers.

Step 2. If you’re still employed but suspect you’re being passed over or demoted because of your age, let someone in the company know your concerns. It could be your supervisor, if you feel that he or she would be receptive to what you have to say; or it could be someone from the human resources department, which is typically responsible for seeing that the organization complies with the ADEA and other employment mandates.

Step 3. File a charge with the EEOC. This is mandatory if you think you’ll eventually end up suing. You don’t need a positive finding from the EEOC investigation to pursue a lawsuit—in fact, you don’t even need to wait for a decision; you can initiate a suit 60 days after filing your claim—but the process can be beneficial, particularly if you have a good EEOC investigator. “It’s free discovery,” says McCann, adding that the investigation often can indicate how the company would defend itself in a COURT of law.

If you do file a charge with the EEOC, McCann says you should politely but firmly keep up with the investigation and communicate with the investigator assigned to your case. You might want to suggest employees or former employees for the investigator to contact, for example.

Step 4. If all else fails, file a lawsuit. Guidelines for taking legal action are available on the EEOC website.

What does it take to successfully sue? Ottinger offers the following checklist:

You must be over 40. That’s when the ADEA kicks in.

You must be able to prove that age was a motivating factor in your dismissal. The older you are the higher your salary is likely to be, and that gives employers a lot of cover. “They can legally hire someone who is one-third of your price, and that’s not illegal,” says Ottinger.

You must be able to demonstrate that your performance was not at issue.

And then, you need stamina. Remember, the Google case is still making its way through the courts, eight years after plaintiff Brian Reid lost his job.


Posted by Elvis on 10/17/11 •
Section Dying America • Section Workplace
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