September 13, 2000

Age discrimination: Is Open Source different?

Author: JT Smith

By Jack Bryar
NewsForge Columnist

Open Source business

Age discrimination: IT corporate trade groups claim it doesn't exist.
Middle-aged tech workers claim it's a fact of life. But how do Open
Source companies compare to other software and service firms in the
industry?Tech workers are in demand. We hear it all the time. We're told that in the Los
Angeles basin software
employment has been growing by 15% a year
.
We hear that the shortage of tech workers has become so acute that the
United States will
import 200,000 H-1B foreign workers
to fill empty slots. We hear
that the IT industry is one of the few true meritocracies. Employers
regularly hire ethic minorities and women and people whose lifestyles
might not pass muster with the likes of Jerry Falwell or the Boy Scouts
of America. Color doesn't seem to matter -- with one exception --
gray.

Why is it that the computer industry has been so
hostile to older workers? And will the Linux community be any different?

According to Professor Norman Matloff at the University of California-Davis, the IT shortage
is a myth. There's not a shortage of IT workers as much as there is a
shortage of netslaves -- youthful, preferably unmarried,
workers who will put in an 80-hour week on a regular basis,
preferably for stock options, a refrigerator full of Coca-Cola, and
small money. Matloff claims that the unemployment rate for IT
workers begins to climb after age 35. He says that the rate hits 17% for
IT workers over 50 years old. He also cites a 7-year-old study that
suggests that after 20 years, fewer than 20% of computer science
graduates are still working in their profession, which is less than half
the number of civil engineers still working in their profession after
two decades.

Industry trade groups such as the Information Technology Association of
America
hotly dispute Matloff's figures. The ITAA's Susan Marshall
said, "If older workers aren't being asked to participate [in today's
workplace] I don't know of it." She may not have been trying too hard to
find out. The IEEE did a survey of its members and 20% said they had
personally suffered from age discrimination. Stories like Doug Keltz's
are widespread. The 49-year-old Keltz told eWeek last fall about an
occasion when a Silicon Valley CEO openly bragged that he never hired
anyone over 35. At the time, Kelz, a skilled technical professional, was
unemployed.

Some of this discrimination is salary-based. In an industry where
nearly all costs are tied to human resources, software companies are on
the lookout for inexpensive labor. Older workers are caught in a double
bind. If they are any good, they're expected to be too expensive. If
their salary expectations are reasonable, they're assumed to be
deadwood.

Others suggest that more than salary concerns and age biases are at
work here. Professor Curtiss Priest, who runs the Center for Information,
Technology & Society, suggests that many new computing concepts are
hard for older developers to adjust to. In a recent email, Priest said,
"Those just getting into systems programming do put systems together
faster, not just because they are energetic and put in long hours, it is
also that they reach for tools that many over 50 find hard to grasp."
Priest cites the "new paradigm" that has emerged around "object oriented
programming," suggesting that "a C programmer can't get his mind around
C++," and that even Basic has been "revamped to more object and method
orientations."

The evidence is uneven. A quick scan of the skill sets at Senior Techs, a free databank of
unemployed "older information technology professionals" lists nearly
1,300 people with Cobol programming skills, but only 57 with C++ and less
than 25 with Java. The database features 155 experts in operating
systems such as DOS/VSE. It lists 115 experts in MVS/ESA/XA. But the
databank lists only 37 unemployed professionals at Senior Techs who
claim to be skilled in Linux, with even fewer familiar with common Open
Source products like Apache. Yet the fact that there is anyone
out there with Linux skills who remains unemployed long enough to show
up in Senior Tech's database suggests that at least some of those who
are unemployed remain so because of rank prejudice.

Ageism is rampant among younger managers who otherwise pride
themselves on their inclusiveness. A couple of years ago Network World
surveyed readers with some degree of hiring responsibility. The survey
showed a strong age bias among younger network managers. Of managers in
the 41 to 50 age group, 39% had hired at least one person over 40 in the
past year. That number dropped to only 13% of respondents in the 20-30
age group. This is a particular problem with start-ups, many of which
are dominated by younger people. Interviews with older workers suggest
that they routinely get asked by younger managers if they "are willing
to work 150%," or if they are "willing to work 36 hours straight to
complete a project," the strong implication being that they couldn't.

Older workers are often stereotyped as inflexible, slow moving,
and unable to change job functions. At the same time, many recruiters
fail to use flexibility (or much common sense) when looking for
prospective employees, especially among middle-aged candidates. Last
year, Brian
Jaffe of eWeek reported
being told by a recruiter for an insurance
company that his client was looking for "a project manager who knows
Microsoft Project." As Jaffe pointed out, there's hardly a project
manager who doesn't know the program (and its innumerable defects), and
it's not a terribly hard program to learn. Yet, if a prospective
candidate didn't list this "skill," he or she wasn't even considered for
an interview.

William Dorsey, an applications manager at the Northeastern Ohio
Universities College of Medicine, suggests that the IT industry is
simply catching up -- or falling back -- to the same problems faced in
other industries. He said, "Age bias is not a new phenomenon in the work
place, it is merely new in information technology. We've finally become
old enough as a discipline to experience it." Indeed, as other industries
become more
technical, they increasingly discriminate
against middle-aged
workers.

Dorsey suggests that age bigots are incredibly shortsighted, and he
refers to basic knowledge management
principles. He says, "retraining an experienced worker to use new
technology tools often pays great dividends since the new skills are
layered upon the breadth and depth of their experience and maturity."

According to the
industry's own figures
, IT companies have been paying a high price
for their prejudices. Discriminating firms may be putting themselves at
a
disadvantage when dealing with their customers, many of whom are headed
by 50 to 60 year olds. Larry Beaudoin, an 18-year IT veteran, told
Computer Reseller News that he was rejected by a half dozen employers
before landing a job with Sage Computer Associates. The 56-year-old
noted with some satisfaction that a little gray hair and a lot of
experience was an advantage when selling complex systems to customers.
But, he adds, there are limits. "If I try other places, like the young
start-ups, which I have, they look at me like I have three heads."

In addition to lost sales, age discrimination is increasing wage costs
and turnover.
A recent study showed that 76.5% of companies were now
offering sign-on bonuses to IT workers. As a result turnover rates are
accelerating.
According to a recent survey from Jobtrack.com, 58% of new IT
graduates plan to stay at their first job less than two years. The cost
of such continuous turnover is high, but many firms, particularly
dot-coms,
have virtually no retraining budget, and many managers choose to believe
that constant turnover
is an advantage, as it opens up opportunities for entry-level employees
with the
latest skills. As one older worker said, "No one ever asked me how long
I planned to stay with the company. I used to get asked that all the
time."

How does the Open Source community stack up against its peers in
other sections of the IT industry?

One of the things I like about the Linux culture has been its
relative openness to the "chronologically advanced," although I have to
admit the Open Source culture takes some getting used to. The folks I
know at Andover [now OSDN] include a lot of extremely middle-aged people.
Parent VA Linux recently hired a middle-aged, 17-year veteran of the
mainframe world as its number one systems guy. But your experience may
vary. I spoke to a person who recently interviewed at Eazel. I won't reveal whether she got
the job, but she came away from her interview thinking that the firm was
not opposed to hiring seasoned workers with deep Unix and C experience.
She did notice that only
a few of their open positions
asked for much more than three or four
years
of experience, however. By contrast, other Linux firms seem to be
focused
on courting exclusively youthful workers. For example, one of Red Hat's
businesses involves
certification and training services
, but its employment Web site
says little about things of concern to middle aged workers like health
benefits, and says nothing about continuing education or training. Instead,
their
site emphasizes that
"our offices [are]... a veritable
playground, with brightly colored decor, pinball machines, an
unlimited supply of caffeinated drinks, and groups of people playing Ms.
Pacman and Quake
." While probably not intentional, this is not the
language of a firm trying all that hard to attract middle-aged tech
workers.

Still, that's hardly evidence of discrimination. The Linux
community is one of the few I've run into with 50-year-olds who do play
Quake and Pacman. It's hard to assess a company's view of older workers
from the outside. If you've had an experience, either good or bad, either as an older worker or as a young manager dealing with older workers, let me
know. I'd love to hear from you.

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