IT doesn’t handle aging well

Entrepreneur-turned-academic Vivek Wadhwa calls it Silicon Valley’s Dark Secret. In a recent TechCrunch article, the visiting scholar at University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information describes an implicit ageism in the hiring and compensation of programmers and engineers in information technology. But what’s a greyhair to do? According to Wadhwa, move up the ladder into management; be prepared to earn less if you want to continue coding; and/or keep your rock-star-calibre coding skills up to date.

Common path

It’s something I’d noticed anecdotally through a dozen years covering technology; many technical people end up in product management, marketing management or sales engineering roles. Arnie Teolis, director of technology services with staffing firm Robert Half International Inc., says it’s a common career path for older IT workers. Strong technical people who can articulate technology in a business context “can be very valuable in that sort of role,” he says.

But the diminishing returns for a coder who wants to stay close to the craft – or simply doesn’t want to deal with the meetings, politics and other “benefits” of the management stream – aren’t a matter of systemic ageism, Teolis insists. “Age is not the issue,” Teolis, himself a 25-year IT vet before jumping to the staffing side about six years ago, says.
Rather, the issue is keeping current with the required skill set, Teolis says. You can be a guru in a particular language right out of school and quickly fall out of date. “It just speaks to how quickly technology changes,” according to Teolis. “You can be 28 and your skills can be out of date.”
When I posted that last observation on Twitter, it wasn’t well-received. Elliot Ross, an IT manager with industrial training and development firm Independent Learning Systems Inc. in Ottawa, found it reflective of a far-too-common attitude in IT.
“We do have a bad reputation (in IT) as body shops, looking for two years’ experience in a six-month-old technology,” says Ross, a 15-year IT vet who’s worked his way up from tech support and is now in charge of IT strategy and operations.
There’s a baby-with-the-bathwater tendency in tech; every time a project requires expertise in a new technology, companies look to replace those skilled in the old technology with those skilled in the new. Car dealerships, Ross notes, don’t hire new staff with expertise in the 2011 model year to replace their 2010 staffers.
“Each project that you tackle is not the same,” Ross says. IT professionals are used to “variability”; rapid adaptation is a more important skill than .Net competence.
According to a Berkeley study, the cost of bringing a new body on board – hiring costs, training, decreased productivity as the employee ramps up – can be as high as 150 per cent of the employee’s annual salary.
By virtue of the business his company is in, Ross is exposed to training and development practices in other industries. “We see what the return can be on providing the training,” he says.
“Why, in IT, do we overlook the training that other industries do?” he wonders. “In the IT space … we have offloaded that completely on to the employee.”
IT workers aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed. Lori Keith, a senior manager of policy development with Health Canada, picked up on it when she went back to school for a two-year MBA program at the Telfer School of Management at Ottawa University. While she and many others in the class had their skills improvement opportunity paid for by their employers, without exception, classmates from the IT field were there on their own nickel, Keith says.
“If they wanted to broaden their careers, they had to do it on their own,” Keith says.
IT’s focus on specific certifications is a “stark contrast” to hiring practices in government, Keith says. She looks for a core skill set when hiring; there’s a structure for training to deal with the changing landscape. “There’s actually a commitment to ongoing learning,” Keith says. It’s part of the culture. And, as a manager, it’s part of Keith’s performance review, she says. “It’s one of my main roles as a manager.”
Future roles
Another thing IT doesn’t handle well, according to Ross, is that question of future roles. Your best engineers aren’t necessarily your best managers. “If he’s the best engineer, why can’t he be the best engineer and be compensated for it?”
“It takes 10,000 hours of experience to become an expert in something,” Ross says. That experience gives the experienced worker a view of the bigger picture, and an instinctive grasp of the job. An architectural engineer, for example, “can take a quick look at the plans and say, ‘You might want to check the math on that load-bearing piece,’” he says.
Even job titles are immature compared to other industries, Ross says. The R&D field has senior fellowships, something that’s rare in IT. You don’t have to be on the management track to be recognized, “and, let’s face it, get paid properly,” says Ross.
The greying of the workforce is a fact employers had better get used to. According to Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey, while the proportion of the IT workforce aged 35 to 44 has declined marginally in the last 10 years – from 32.6 per cent to 32.1 per cent – 22.7 per cent of IT pros were 45 to 54 in June 2010, compared to 16.3 per cent in March 2000, and 9.8 per cent were over 55 in 2010, compared to 3.8 per cent in 2000.
Meanwhile, the proportion of IT professionals at the younger end of the age spectrum is decreasing.
In 2000, 9.8 per cent of IT workers fell into the 15-24 age bracket, while 37.6 per cent — the largest demographic — were between 25 and 34. By June 2010, those numbers had become 6.2 per cent and 29.1 per cent respectively. The 35- to 44-year-old age bracket is now the largest demographic.
There’s a lot of upside to older IT workers, notes Teolis. “They have that ability to hit the ground running,” he says. They also have experience in the job environment and tend to have better decision-making skills and judgment. “They make good mentors. Whether they want to be managers is immaterial,” he says. 

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