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The High Price of Age Discrimination

The High Price of Age Discrimination

Whether it's illegal, unethical or simply bad business, too many IT veterans are getting left behind in a labour market that needs all the talent it can get.

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Find out why IT has a bad reputation for how it treats its veterans.

Read about policies and practices that will prevent age discrimination in your organisation.

Learn how to create a work environment that gets the most from older workers Does the i.t. world discriminate against older workers? Rodney Struhs thinks so. Although he is almost two decades away from qualifying for full Social Security retirement benefits, he thinks his age has kept him from finding full-time work for more than a year since his Y2K gig ended. In his first six months of job hunting, Struhs, 47, received only one or two calls, despite listing nearly two decades of experience as a project manager. Then he made some changes to his résumé, opting to include only 10 years of experience. "As soon as I shaved off 10 years, I got seven or eight calls in the first week," he says. But the job hunt didn't end. "The interview is pretty much done as soon as they see how old you are. They'll come out with a great big smile, and as soon as they see you the smile disappears," says Struhs, who was willing to relocate from Salt Lake City. "The guys over 50 tell me it gets worse."

Countless IT veterans have written to CIO with tales similar to that of Struhs's. One article on CIO.com brought out an army of them: Within days of being asked "Do CIOs Discriminate Against Older Workers?" about 200 readers had posted answers; a majority of them gave a resounding yes.

The IT industry has long been fighting such accusations in the court of public opinion. The stories make gripping headlines. Everyone worries about getting old, and everyone has read about Web divisions domineered by nose-ringed newbie programmers. Skills-hungry IT departments retort that with hundreds of thousands of IT jobs unfilled, no sane businessperson would discriminate; they fall back on legal ambiguities, blame the high-tech sector or dotcoms for the problem, and say to workers like Struhs, "Send me your résumé!" But it's naive to simply assume that age discrimination only happens elsewhere, and it's bad business if any workers - especially those with years of experience - are getting left behind. CIOs need to take active steps to eliminate age discrimination and prevent the damage it can cause.

A Bad Reputation

The I.T. industry can't cover its lack of gray hairs. According to the most recent numbers available from the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), a trade organisation in Arlington, Va., workers age 55 and older make up only 6.8 percent of the IT workforce, compared to 11.7 percent of the workforce overall. Given the explosion of technology jobs in the past 20 years, some discrepancy is understandable, but the report also indicated that professionals may be leaving the field. Twenty years after graduation, only 19 percent of computer science graduates still work in IT. The question is, Are they choosing to leave - or are they forced out because of stereotypes and assumptions? (These people cost too much. These people don't fit into corporate culture. They're hard to manage. They lack energy. They don't want to learn new skills; they can't learn new skills.) Back when articles with headlines like "Too Old to Write Ways to Avoid Age Discrimination Code?" came out, Congress requested a study that onlookers hoped would answer that question once and for all. But in late 2000, when the National Research Council's report was released, its conclusion about the older IT workforce centred on the word inconclusive. The report confirmed that the IT workforce is younger than other industry employees with comparable education. More ambiguously, IT workers age 40 and older are more likely to lose their jobs than younger ones but equally likely to find new jobs in a similar length of time - although they tend to take pay cuts. The report, calling for more research, didn't answer the bigger question of why those differences exist. "It may be the result of illegal age discrimination," says study director and senior scientist Herbert Lin. "It may also be the result of employers' actions that are perfectly legal that nevertheless create the perception of discrimination."

That distinction agitates the agitators, like Norman Matloff, a University of California at Davis computer science professor who has become the most vocal advocate for IT's elders. Matloff calls the report a whitewash that wrongly focused on the narrow definition of illegal ageism.

In some states, to prove age discrimination, lawyers must show that a company intended to discriminate, explains Tom Osborne, a staff attorney for the AARP Foundation Litigation, the legal branch of the AARP. In other kinds of discrimination cases, lawyers need only prove that a company did something that resulted in discrimination, intentional or not. In other words, if a company cuts costs by firing its highest-paid programmers, and if those workers happen to be over age 40, the company has not necessarily broken the law.

That doesn't mean the company made the best decision, and we're not just talking about karma. CIOs need to ask themselves tough ethical questions about how they value experience versus the latest skills or the lowest salary. Besides, no company wants the bad press of a lawsuit, or the chance of losing it. Jurors - themselves aging with every moment spent on jury duty - tend to be sympathetic to these plaintiffs. Pittsburgh attorney John Stember recalls one recent case where merely the threat of a lawsuit was enough to convince a utility company not to fire a midlevel IT employee in his 50s.

Different but Equal?

Talking about age in the workplace is like asking a CIO how much money she makes. Even CIO Steve Bromet of Consolidated Stores says older workers are important to the industry.

Many executives are understandably reluctant to have their names tied to the debate and insist that if discrimination is happening, it's happening elsewhere. "I've always felt that in this career field, there is no discrimination," says Steve Bromet, CIO of Consolidated Stores in Columbus, Ohio, where the 100-person IT staff consists of students to sixtysomethings. "Older folks like me have an important role to play."

When age-related issues arise, finger-pointing ensues - at recruiters, human resources departments, managers or even executives. Attorneys say it's crucial that the CIO set a good example. "I suppose you could put out memos saying, 'Don't do this,' but I don't know that it does a lot of good," AARP's Osborne says. "It has to come from the top down. If they say one thing but there's a wink there and a nod here, the lower parts of the company are going to pick up on that. But if they see that there's a consistent policy to hire the best that they can get, I think that's what will happen."

The problem with all this is that even CIOs who rave about their older workers make such clear age-based distinctions that one can't help but remember the old quip about stereotypes existing because they're true. CIOs such as 42-year-old Steve Morin at TAC Worldwide Companies, a Boston-area staffing services provider, refer to their "younger workers with hot skills" and "older workers with old skills but a heck of a lot of experience and wisdom."

There's a fine line between making unfair assumptions and making the best use of skills that workers tend to have, but Morin and others bridge it by putting together teams of, er, differently abled workers. Steven Steinbrecher, the fiftysomething CIO of the county of Contra Costa outside San Francisco, asks project managers to team (older) workers who excel in back-end legacy skills with (younger) ones who excel in newer, front-end tools such as Internet and ERP extraction. The results can be frustrating, but Steinbrecher thinks the knowledge team members gain from one another is worth it.

But business experience comes with a price. "A lot of companies decide that one way to cut costs is to take somebody who's making $80,000 a year, kick them out the door and bring in somebody making $40,000 a year," says H. Michael Boyd, program manager of human resources strategies research at IDC (a sister company of CIO's publisher, CXO Media). The money they save, though, is irrelevant if a project fails - as he believes many do - because of a lack of experience.

Train to Retain

Business experience may come naturally with time, but the newest technical skills don't. Even advocates for seniors - as they lament H1-B visas to bring in talent from overseas - admit that some older workers simply have outdated skills. "When skills are current, all ages are equal," says William Payson, president and CEO of Campbell, Calif.-based Senior Staff Job Information Exchange, which has a database of 20,000 IT workers over age 35 who are looking for work (www.seniortechs.com). Unfortunately, making a business case for training or retraining can be difficult because no one agrees who should take responsibility, who should be trained and what the most effective methods are. Tom Wilson, manager of training services for the IT consultancy CTG, headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y., says training is seen as a "necessary evil"; businesses know they have to invest in it but wish they didn't. Some executives say they can't afford to retrain; others say they can't afford not to.

Fairfax County CIO David Molchany says retraining is worth the effort and expense. "If we find someone who's a good fit but who we have to train to learn a complementary technology to their own skill set, then we will do that," he says. At Contra Costa County, Steinbrecher has moved star legacy performers to "the other side of the fence." And at Fingerhut Co., a direct marketing and online retailer based in the Minneapolis area, CIO Gary Bledsoe has had success putting Cobol and C programmers through a six-month transition into object-oriented development.

IDC's Boyd notes that "it's always, always less expensive to educate somebody than to try to hire somebody" and that employees just out of school tend to need more managerial hand-holding. Many CIOs consider training an effective recruiting and retention tool; in a survey on CIO.com, 48 percent of IT professionals said their companies had increased training budgets for exactly those reasons. Bledsoe notes, deliberately, that his workers are "as loyal as they get."

The mobility Bledsoe alludes to helps older workers, points out Rich Brennen, managing director of the Chicago-based executive recruiter Spencer Stuart, and not just because they're perceived as more stable. "Years ago, clients looked at employees in terms of 10-, 15- or 20-year career paths, and today that is certainly no longer true," says Brennen. "Clients tend to look at workers from a standpoint of, Can I get five years out of that person? From that perspective, it no longer matters whether they're 25 or 65."

Nevertheless, a loosening of the staffing market - in April the ITAA cut its estimates on the staffing shortage from 850,000 open IT positions to 425,000 - only spells more trouble ahead for applicants and employees closer to 65. As a general rule, discrimination occurs less in tight job markets. "The dust hasn't settled on this," says Pittsburgh attorney Stember. As America's population ages and the need for business-savvy IT workers continues, CIOs can't sit back and assume that a memo to the HR department will ensure that age discrimination isn't happening. They need to take a hands-on approach to make sure that their company isn't the one in the embarrassing anecdotes. Someday, their own jobs may depend on it.

How are you making use of IT veterans? Tell Senior Writer Sarah D. Scalet by e-mailing her at sscalet@cio.com.

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