While many IT managers are wringing their hands over unfilled computing slots and others are racking up frequent-flier miles in their global search for programming help, a growing number of savvy companies are finding experienced technical help much closer to home.
Immediate help isn't coming from the multimillion-dollar spending package proposed by President Clinton. Nor is it coming from the easing of immigration controls proposed by Congress, or even the new "programming is cool" video featuring NYPD Blue's Jimmy Smits. Help is coming from a group that the U.S. Department of Labor has called our greatest untapped employment resource: men and women over 50.
A few years ago, the computing industry seemed to think that older workers were disposable. Many were forced to retire as companies downsized. Now, many firms are discovering that these experienced programmers can still contribute. Indeed, as the next millennium approaches and the demand for mainframe pros grows, more companies will realize the value of older IT professionals, especially organizations working on Year 2000 problems. In some situations, older workers may be a company's best hire.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 16 million workers--13% of the national labor force--are over the age of 55. Today, only 4.8%, or just under 90,000, of our country's computer programmers and analysts are 55 or older. However, given the growing demand for Y2K experts, many are expecting these numbers to rise.
No one is more excited about this reversal of fortunes for older programmers than Bill Payson. He runs Senior Staff 2000 (http://www.srstaff.com), a job information databank in Campbell, Calif., for IT pros over 50. The databank contains information on more than 10,000 seniors experienced with COBOL, FORTRAN, RPG, and other programming languages. Payson says older programmers are the cavalry riding in to save companies from Y2K problems. He proudly wears a bright yellow button proclaiming: "Old Pros to the Rescue."
If you are having difficulty filling IT vacancies, consider tapping resources closer to home before looking overseas. While there are drawbacks to hiring the senior set to augment your junior staffers, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
And mature IT pros have plenty of "sea time." COMSYS (http://www.comsysinc.com), a division of Houston-based Metamor Worldwide and one of the nation's leading providers of IT consultants, recognizes the technical skills of these older programmers and has started to work with Senior Staff to place Y2K experts. Carolyn Edwards, a COMSYS account manager, notes, "These are the people that built these systems."
Innovative companies are finding ways to attract and retain older professionals by offering such benefits as job sharing and flexible schedules. One programmer assisted by Senior Staff agreed to accept less than half his normal rate because the company was willing to work around his schedule.
Realizing that many older workers may be left behind by new technology, a number of organizations are working to reduce the growing technology gap between our nation's young and old. In one program, Microsoft, the U.S. Department of Labor, and Arlington, Va.-based Green Thumb (http://www.greenthumb.org), a leading provider of employment and training services for older Americans, have teamed up to train seniors for high-tech jobs. Under this program, seniors can train to become Microsoft-certified developers, trainers, and systems engineers.
One solution to this location problem is telecommuting. Companies that are willing to allow employees to work at home from these sunnier locations will no doubt find an abundance of trained and experienced workers. While IT shops may need to be more flexible to attract and retain older IT pros, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Mature programmers bring a tremendous work ethic and unmatched experience to the computing workplace. Their experience is particularly beneficial to shops dealing with Y2K problems. For IT groups with chronic staff shortages and constant turnover, it just may be time to call in the "Old pros." //
James R. Wolf is an assistant professor of Computer Information Systems at Cedarville College in Cedarville, Ohio, and a freelance writer specializing in Internet-related topics. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.