Is IT wasted on the young?

The CIO at one of New Zealand's largest enterprises says age is not so much as even discussed at his company, as "it does not matter what age, sex, and race people are".

Both Ian Rae, IT manager of Auckland City Council, and North Shore City Council CIO Tony Rogers -- who describes himself as “a mature person in his 50s” -- say age makes no difference in characteristics such as sharpness, flexibility and adaptability.

Rae says all age groups “bring their own challenges to manage”, but believes diversity in the workplace is healthy.

Don Cooper, formerly GM of information systems at Fisher & Paykel and now logistics GM, however, feels IT is a younger person’s industry. He says many IT managers “make too much money and get out early”.

The 53-year-old, who joined the appliance maker 30 years ago, says younger people tend to see things in black and white, which comes from a lack experience.

The attractiveness of employing older people waxes and wanes with the attitude of the times. Corporate restructuring and the cost-cutting mentality of the 1990s put many older, more expensive workers out to pasture. But impending skill shortages and the growing cost of superannuation means economies can no longer afford to let their experienced workers leave the workforce quite so soon. And their experience can be of great value in the IT department.

Another reason: after scandals like Enron and Andersen, increased business focus on fiscal responsibility means employers need the business skills of someone who has been there and done that.

In Australia organisations such as Westpac and Inter Security Systems have begun targeting older IT workers as they realise populations trends mean there just won’t be enough younger workers to go around.

While Australian government statistics show the number older workers aged over 55 in fulltime paid work dropping dramatically over the past 30 years, New Zealand government figures say falling unemployment in recent years has actually increased the participation rate of older Kiwi workers.

Even so, a ministerial briefing paper, prepared for the re-elected Labour government some months ago, spoke of “general barriers” to the employment of older workers.

“[These] can include negative attitudes of employers towards mature workers, the ability to pay lower wages to young people, and employers wanting to ‘give younger people a chance’," the paper says. "Personal barriers include lack of confidence, lack of computer skills, being either under- or over-qualified for the positions available, and having to accept lower income levels than previously, and not being able or willing to relocate to take up work opportunities."

The paper adds that employers perceive older workers to be “change-resistant and having problems with technology, but at the same time being dependable and productive".

The removal of a compulsory retirement age in 1999 and human rights legislation forbidding age discrimination "had little effect to actual recruitment practices”, says the paper, so many of the "mature workless" do not want to be.

Indeed, the Human Rights Commission’s September 2002 Tirohia newsletter reports “a damaging trend to write people off from as young as 50”.

The briefing paper recommends a shift in attitudes to help overcome the problem. Quite how this can be achieved is not certain.

ITANZ chief Jim O’Neill agrees with the view that IT businesses increasingly rely on the skills of older people, not so much in newer areas like systems development and e-commerce, but in sales and marketing, relationship management and business development.

O’Neill says this is because older people are often seen as having greater empathy with customers and more credibility. However, he sees growing skill shortages across the wider industry and a need for seniors in mentoring and teaching, particularly in IT.

New Zealand IT&T director of recruiters TMP Worldwide, Greg Thompson, says older people are particularly useful in quality roles, ensuring the young don’t cut corners. They also tend to be affordable, and don't have the egos of younger staff or demand the latest technology. They have also seen so much change that they are used to it and can adapt. And being more financially stable, they are willing to take more short-term work.

Thompson says there is a shortage of senior developers, believing they have moved to other parts of the industry. He says his clients often employ people aged over 55 to mentor teams aged 19-23.

TMP says there is no research on age groups of people in IT, but he believes the average IT staffer is aged between 28 and 30, and 35 to 40 in senior roles.

It cuts both ways, Thompson says: IT managers sometimes perceive older workers as not having the right skills, while an older worker may have qualms about working for a younger boss.

However, it's fair to say that those we spoke to don't regard age as an issue. The CIO at one of New Zealand’s largest enterprises says age is not so much as even discussed at his company, as “it does not matter what age, sex, and race people are”.

But just because it's not discussed doesn't always mean it's not an issue. For every company that believes younger workers are sharper and hungrier for challenges, firms like Adecco Australia counter that mature workers tend to be more loyal, have a stronger work ethic and more experience, while providing positive role models for staff.

Though perhaps Fisher & Paykel's Cooper has the right idea. "I’m taking early retirement as soon as I can get it, to enjoy a different world."

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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