Older IT Workers: A Survival Guide

If you’re old enough to remember the debut of Windows NT, you may face some challenges in the tech job market. Here’s a guide to getting hired as an IT veteran.
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The story is a familiar one: the older IT worker, with a long and impressive resume, is downsized. But the real challenge –  even worse than losing their job – comes when they try to find another tech position.

They go from interview to interview, sending out their resume to scads of employers, but they get no offers. Finally, they reach a sobering conclusion: no one wants to hire me because I’m older.

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The extent to which age bias is a real factor is open to debate. Yet one fact is inarguable: in an industry that prizes today’s technology, what’s happening this quarter, an older worker can feel shunted aside.

Despite having mastery of the last six major technology cycles, his resume might display only adequate knowledge of the current cycle. So suddenly, he’s sent to the back of the line, in favor of younger IT staffers – many of whom didn’t know how to boot up a computer back when he was assembling complex networks.

Not surprisingly, a certain bitterness sets in among these veteran tech workers. They grumble about age bias, about what they see as the rampant discrimination against a professional who’s been around awhile.

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Strap On Your Jet Packs

“The primary difference between IT and a lot of other fields out there is that IT goes through very significant change, about once a year,” says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology.

In contrast, “You could argue that for someone in the accounting industry, although they always have new things to learn, accounts payable is accounts payable.”

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By the same token, a lawyer who has 30 years experience can charge top dollar. But a technologist with 30 years experience probably worked with mainframes – expertise that only a small sliver of the job market now cares about.

The ever-changing nature of tech means there’s a kind of ageism built into the industry itself. Previous experience is devalued because previous technology moves toward irrelevance.

Couple this built-in ageism with whatever age bias exists in potential employers, and veteran IT staffers faces a real challenge: how can I stay employed after the first few gray hairs?

Step One: Invest in Yourself

The extent to which ageism actually affects IT hiring is a subject of great debate. Gretchen Koch, director of skills development for CompTIA, tells Datamation that she’s heard a fair number of tech staffers say they’ve encountered anti-older worker sentiment. Yet she’s also heard of veteran workers getting hired quickly.

Notes Robert Half’s Lee: “I think a lot of people say, 'I'm being discriminated against because I’m older.'" However, “If you’re still using the skill set you used 10 years ago, my argument is: maybe you’re being overlooked because you’ve not kept your skill sets current.”

Hence her advice: Invest in yourself – keep your skills up to date. Do whatever’s necessary to be a wizard on today’s emerging technology.

This self-education can take many forms: online courses, classroom sessions, any number of certifications. Reading trade journals and the latest publications helps.

And make sure your soft skills are up to snuff. Specifically, those all-important communication skills. Lee talks with many high tech employers, and she hears certain requests again and again. They tell her, “’Gosh, we need someone really experienced, and with great business savvy, who has these technologies,” she says, and “we want them to have really good communication skills.”

In sum, “It has less to do with age, and more to with, you cannot be a one-trick pony.” Employers want a well-rounded package – something an older staffer is better positioned to offer.

The Resume Dance

The resume can be an older tech professional’s worst enemy. Sure, it displays that impressive experience. But that lengthy list of jobs can highlight a staffer’s longevity – in an unflattering way.

Experts disagree on whether a resume should be edited to downplay experience, in hopes that a gray rooster can look more like a spring chicken.

“I think that actually hurts people,” to remove jobs, Lee opines.

“I think sometimes in resumes and interviews and cover letters, people will hesitate to highlight their years of experience,” she says. “But I think by doing that you might be missing an opportunity to be considered for a position maybe with even greater responsibilities. I recommend to people, never, ever sell yourself or your experience short.”

In contrast, CompTIA’s Koch says it’s most important to shape your resume, to tailor it to the job you’re seeking – which might mean selectively editing your job list.

“You want to formulate your resume around your skill set rather than job by job,” she says. “That sort of thing [listing all your jobs] opens the door to ‘Wow, this individual’s been around since the cows came home.’”

“The more information you have about the position they’re looking for, the better.” Anything additional may or may not work in your favor, she says.

“I’ve heard career counselors say, ‘Give yourself a 15 to 20 year window. You don’t have to go back to Day One – ‘I worked in a local high school library when I was in high school.”’

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Older IT pros really do face some challenges, and sometimes their awareness of those challenges creates still another problem: they get discouraged. They have a hard time gathering the gumption needed for a job hunt.

But that downbeat attitude only makes things worse.

“You have to go into the process with a very positive attitude,” Koch says. “If you approach it, ‘Oh woe is me, the world is against me, 50 and above, I’m never going to find a job, you start off with a strike against you.

“You have to go into it thinking: my work is of value. My experience is of value.” (Even if the 28-year-old HR person doesn’t realize that.)

A positive attitude makes it easier to maintain something that's essential to the job hunt: your social network.

This extended network is an advantage of the veteran tech staffer. “You’ve met a lot of people and worked with a lot of people over the years,” Koch says. “Older workers should call up that bigger and larger network of contacts they have from the past.”

Case in point: “I have a cousin whose husband recently lost his job. Before he got home, he was on the phone that day, calling all his friends in his network. And before he got home, he had lined up a couple of interviews through his network. And he ended up landing one of those jobs in a local hospital here.”

She points to support groups like the Dupage Executive Network (based in Chicago) that helps senior execs “in career transition.” Tapping in to such networks is a good way to expand your options.

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