Beating the IT age bias

If you’re an IT worker over 40, you’re 16 per cent more likely to lose your job than a younger IT worker. It will take you 21 per cent longer to find a new job than a younger applicant, and it will be 25 per cent harder just to get an interview. And when you finally get that new job, you’ll typically take a 13 per cent pay cut.

That’s what a new U.S. study by the National Academy of Sciences said – though the researchers balk at admitting there’s age discrimination in IT. No sir, lieutenant, we’re not sure it’s murder, all we’ve got is a dead guy with a dozen stab wounds in his back. Maybe it’s suicide – or even just coincidence.

The study – you’ll find a link to it on the Web at – was commissioned by Congress in 1998, when lawmakers were raising the annual limit for H-1B guest-worker visas from 65,000 to more than 100,000.

Maybe we can’t blame the researchers for not drawing the obvious conclusion that there is discrimination against older IT workers.

After all, age discrimination is a crime – and this is supposed to be a report on the U.S. IT workforce, not crime. More than that, it’s a report to a Congress that’s a lot more enthusiastic about jacking up the number of guest workers than doing much about IT age bias.

So Chapter 4 of Building a Workforce for the Information Economy concludes that “the data available to the committee are insufficient to establish either the presence or the absence of age discrimination.”

Those longer percentages for over-40 IT workers might be due to personal choices or simply shifts in the industry, the researchers write.

But the rest of that chapter in the report is a damning summary of data showing something most IT people know and most employers deny: older IT workers regularly get shafted.

Is that something this business should be ashamed of? Sure. But don’t expect any tears for over-40 propellerheads who face age bias. That just won’t happen.

And don’t expect IT employers to quit asking for more and more fresh-from-school kids and IT guest workers for jobs they claim that older IT people can’t fill.

So if you want to beat IT age bias, you’ll have to do it yourself. How? Don’t stand still. Don’t stop learning. And don’t let yourself be steamrolled by change, age bias or anything else.

That means you can’t just do your job and keep current in your speciality. Your speciality may not exist two years from now. Your employer may not exist by then, either. And if you expect your may-not-exist employer to invest in your may-not-exist specialist knowledge, you’re dreaming.

So keep cranking your brain around to what your next job will require. That means making sense of the Internet, e-commerce, dealing with customers instead of just users, serving up better and more secure data to people who never wanted it before in ways they never needed it in the past.

How do you fit into that future? What do you have to do to fit in? Broaden your base. Experiment with a Web page. Dabble in databases. Figure out XML. Teach yourself Java or Perl or JavaScript. Set up a Linux network built from thrift-store PCs. Dip a toe into everything you can learn on the cheap.

Hands-on experience won’t guarantee you a new job if you’re suddenly on the street, but you never know what piece of knowledge will tip the balance in your favour.

Don’t wait. Start now. Because the percentages are against over-40 IT workers – and if you don’t beat those percentages, you’ll feel like you’ve been stabbed in the back.

Hayes is a Computerworld U.S senior news columnist.