For Some Older IT Workers, Job Prospects Improve

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An IT worker walks into a job interview and realizes he won't be getting the job as soon as he sees the look on the hiring manager's face.

The IT worker is over 50 -- maybe even over 60. And hiring managers don't look at him and see experience and know-how. They look at him and think that managing him will be like trying to manage their father. They look at him and think he's too old to be imaginative or to be up on cutting-edge technology.

With one look, they dismiss him.

It's age discrimination, whether it happens consciously or not. And it means that companies are not taking advantage of a talented pool of IT workers, who are experienced with the technology and experienced in working within the corporate machine.

'A Long, Deep Pit'

But it also means that older IT workers are struggling to find work, despite their qualifications.

"It's frustrating. It's like falling down a long, deep pit and you don't know if there's an end to it," says Allan Shapiro, a 61-year-old IT worker with 40 years of experience. "You meet with people who are looking for someone young -- someone who fits in with who they are. If you have a manager who's 40, he's going to be looking for someone his age or younger... I walk in and I know I'm not part of the 'in' group."

Shapiro has been working as an independent consultant for the past three years because he couldn't find a full-time job. His last consulting assignment ended last week, so once again he's joined the ranks of the thousands of older IT workers who are looking for work today.

Like their younger counter-parts, they have to struggle against a down economy, diminished IT budgets and a growth in offshoring. But they also have to deal with an industry that has risen largely on the backs of young, bold entrepreneurs -- or at least that's the perception.

The dot-com boom saw the kids taking over. Shorts and T-shirts became the appropriate office gear. It was all about kids with ideas, and foosball tables occupying what once were the meeting rooms. It was no longer business as usual. If you were over 30, you were a has-been. If you wore a suit, you need not apply.

But those hot-shot kids didn't fare so well. Ideas without business savvy couldn't make a business run. The majority of the dot-coms folded, the kids had their BMWs and their big homes in Palo Alto repossessed, and they went back to school.

So shouldn't this herald the return of the suits? Shouldn't the over-30, over-40, over-50 sets be ushered back in to save the high-tech day?

That is what's happening, according to analysts at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an international outplacement firm based in Chicago. The company recently released a report saying that older IT workers are becoming a hot commodity, with the median job search time for unemployed managers and executives 50 and older dropping 10 times faster than that of younger job seekers.

"A few years ago, it was a young person's game," says John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "Certainly, in the dot-coms, the stereotypes of age discrimination were in full force. The environment was kind of like living in a college dorm. If you were over 40, you weren't going to get in. You just weren't going to be there."

But Challenger says that is no longer the case.

Job search times have fallen for all age groups since the fourth quarter of 2002, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas. But the drop in over-50 search times was much steeper, dropping 19 percent from 4.9 months in the fourth quarter of last year to 4 months at the end of the third quarter in 2003. During the same time period, job seekers under 50 saw their search times drop by just 1.8 percent.

Experience Proving Crucial

With the dramatic over-50 decline, that puts older workers in a virtual dead heat with those under 50, whose median search time is now 3.8 months. Challenger says he wouldn't be surprised to see older job seekers soon finding jobs faster than their younger counterparts.

"Now the companies that are making it have become much broader based," says Challenger. "Companies have recognized that experience is an essential piece of the puzzle. To bring that business experience on is crucial."

It's a good time, according to Challenger, to be 50.

But you couldn't prove that by Shapiro, who says he's seen no signs of becoming an over-50 hot commodity.

"I just don't see it," says Shapiro, who has been a programmer, a project manager and a vice president over the course of his career. "Several of my friends who are over 50 are out of work and have been for six months or more than a year... You get night sweats because you don't have a job and you have bills to pay. It affects your emotional relationship with other people. It affects the way you feel about yourself."

Shapiro says he has never doubted his capabilities, but he has come to doubt his ability to make hiring managers realize how capable he is.

"I've had doubts about being able to communicate in their language," he explains. "Every generation has its own language. How do I communicate with them? It's hard to form relationships with peers when there's a 30-year difference."

Add to that the fact that Shapiro says he feels younger managers are intimidated by older subordinates.

"There's a fear factor," he says. "He may feel threatened because the older worker knows more than he does. He may be afraid the older person will show him up... He's thinking about that and not looking at what the older person can bring to the job and the company."

And Shapiro says older IT workers have a lot to offer.

Older workers have technical experience, as well as experience dealing with management, peers and executives on the business side. But they also might have more time to devote to the job that younger workers with young kids just might not have.

"I'm not afraid of working long hours," Shapiro says. "I've got a lot of flexibility, in terms of working nights and weekends. I don't have some of the commitments of younger people who have kids in soccer or little league. But I don't bring that up in interviews because it shows a bias that I don't want to put forth. But an older worker does have that time available and the older worker has the experience that a younger worker doesn't have yet."

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