Older IT workers may have a tough row to hoe

Although he has 30 years of hands-on computer experience – starting before the term IT was even invented – John Moser’s new resume only lists the work he’s done and the qualifications he’s earned since 1988.

“I don’t mention my age because that’s a detriment. . . . The information I do provide basically gives a few years – my last three employers and that’s about it – though I’ve had a lot of good experience even then,” said the 50-something Moser, a Brampton, Ont. field engineer who was laid off from Sabre/American Airlines this past August.

After a hitch at Humber College in Etobicoke, Ont., Moser started his career as a mainframe operator at a Goodyear plant. As mainframe operators started to become the buggy-whip manufacturers of the computer industry, Moser picked up new skills, eventually moving to Wardair/Canadian Airlines, where he travelled all over Eastern Canada and the U.K. as a systems installation and networking specialist for the Sabre reservation system. Lately, as he has looked for a new IT position, he has developed a suspicion that his experience – and his age – are working against him.

Although she has not seen any specific data this topic – and ageism is certainly not something people are keen to confess to or talk about – Marilyn Harris, a Victoria-based consultant affiliated with KLR, and a past-president of the Canadian Information Processing Society, has heard a few of these kinds of stories.

“I think [age discrimination] is something that’s there in most of the professions at the moment . . . it’s probably more of a shock to IT people than people in other disciplines, especially when people have been accustomed to feeling that because of the skills they have, and the work that they do that they were not going to be affected,” Harris said.

However this has happened before, she said, noting that “in the ’80s, there were lots of IT people that were caught in the big switch from Cobol to the so-called fourth generation languages who found that their skills weren’t up to what companies wanted. They had to do some retraining, and certainly it was a huge adjustment for a lot of people then.”

Now 45, though he looks younger, software developer Michael Carmody recently spent several months looking for work close to his Waterloo, Ont. home before accepting a position in Ottawa – a town that has seen its own share of high-tech layoffs. While searching for jobs in Waterloo, Carmody had some interviews during which he felt that his age had been perceived as a problem.

“I speculate that if the team doing the interviewing is young they figure you don’t know anything new and can’t learn. Older (interviewers) tend to be more open-minded and respect experience as a guide to solve new challenges,” he said.

From his perspective, Moser suspects that many companies prefer to train inexpensive new graduates into their particular computing environments. However, they are not really doing a favour for these kids either, he said.

“Knowledge about a specific system, especially if they are using in-house software, ends up being proprietary knowledge. Then it becomes easy to for these new hires to get stuck in that position for the rest of their lives,” he said.

With experience, both Harris and Moser suggested, often comes a valuable mix of people skills and technical knowledge. In addition, Harris suggested that people who have seen departments work over several different companies and lots of years may have a better grasp of issues that are not specifically technical – like privacy and security – but which nevertheless can have a big impact on the success of the technology.

For IT professionals who suspect that their age and experience may actually leave them vulnerable in a youth-oriented industry, Harris said the best defence is on-going professional growth.

“Nobody can be all things to all people, but whatever age people are at in their career it doesn’t mean they can draw a box around what they do and say ‘I don’t need to know about (new) technology.’ The biggest and most significant action IT people can take to guard against being laid off at whatever stage of their career is to stay up to date with developments in the industry.”