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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.
|The unemployment rate for IT professionals over the age of 50 is an unbelievable 17%.|
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.
Advantages "Old pros" have valuable Year 2000 skills. At a time when many companies are in dire need of Y2K help, many older programmers have exactly what the doctor ordered--COBOL and mainframe experience. And many of them have decades of "green screen" experience. Most younger programmers are simply not interested in working with the older programming languages. Senior Staff's Payson notes that to 20-somethings, "COBOL code is like hieroglyphics on King Tut's tomb. It's grandpa's talk." Old pros have experience. "If you're on a boat in the middle of the ocean and a storm is approaching," you want to know that the crew can "safely guide the ship through the storm," says Payson. You don't want a crew, he adds, "that has never experienced a storm at sea."
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." Old pros aren't in it for the money. Studies show that workers over 50 are more satisfied with their jobs and are less likely to switch companies if they are offered more money. According to Payson, only about a third of the programmers in his databank work because they need the money. The majority do it to stay active, because they enjoy the work, or for any number of other reasons. Since seniors are less likely to jump ship, they can add stability to an organization. Edwards adds, "Their work ethic and level of maturity are qualities that should be attractive to all employers." Old pros know their limits. Since mature programmers are less likely to be caught up in the money chase, they also are less likely to inflate their resumes or sign onto a project that they can't handle. Typically, older workers are not looking for new careers, they're looking to contribute. Old pros are available. The unemployment rate for IT professionals over the age of 50 is an unbelievable 17%--even as America's unemployment rate remains near record lows and thousands of computer jobs remain unfilled. This large pool of untapped computer professionals has caused many to claim that the IT work force shortage is a myth. Not only are these professionals available, but they also want to work. After Payson's group was profiled in U.S. News & World Report, he received more than 30 calls from seniors who saw his picture and used magnifying glasses to discover Senior Staff's telephone number on the button he was wearing. They were all IT pros looking for work.
Disadvantages Old pros may have trouble adjusting to the culture. Computing is a youth-dominated field where age 35 is often considered over the hill. Younger HR personnel may have difficulty evaluating the skills of people their parents' age, and seniors may have difficulty working for managers younger than their children. In addition, mature programmers may have difficulty adjusting to the unstructured working environments and long hours that are common at many high-tech firms. Prospective employers can ease this challenge by screening applicants in regard to their work habits and flexibility. Old pros don't want to relocate. While IT pros over 50 are likely to be very loyal to their employers and enjoy making positive contributions to organizations, they are not likely to relocate simply for work. Older people value their friends and family more and typically want to remain close to home. So as long as you've got a local problem, you have a local solution. If you have to relocate workers, then consider moving younger employees, since they're generally more mobile. Old pros aren't interested in long hours. While 17-hour days, a cot in the corner, and the program-until-you-drop method of software development may be fine for recent college grads, mature programmers are not interested in living at the office. Many would prefer working less than a 40-hour week. According to Senior Staff's Payson, "Many of these people have worked their whole lives so that they can spend time on the golf course. They don't want to be chained to their desks."
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. Old pros may need additional training. Many older programmers are unfamiliar with newer technologies. Companies may need to spend time and money getting these older workers up to speed.
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. Old pros may not be available in all areas. While many Y2K workers are required in places like Chicago and Minneapolis, older Americans with programming skills tend to be concentrated in warmer areas like Miami and Phoenix.
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.