A reader who commented yesterday on my blog post, "We Owe It to Our Kids to Get Over the H-1B Hang-Up," took issue with my contention that one of the reasons it's important to encourage our children to pursue careers in IT is the need to fill the jobs that will be vacated by the approaching retirement of a lot of baby boomers.
"Retiring boomers?" he asked. "I suspect that lots of boomer-aged STEM workers get retired long before they turn 65. Age discrimination is rampant." Unfortunately, he makes an all-too-legitimate point.
No doubt, IT hardly corners the market on age discrimination. A couple of job postings on journalismjobs.com caught my eye yesterday: "Seeking Motivated, Talented Young Reporters," proclaimed The New Republic, a political magazine in Washington. The other wasn't quite as blatant. An ad for a "top notch," "experienced" copy editor posted by The Desert Sun in Palm Springs signaled the paper's hiring intentions this way: "You also will get the chance to work in a high-energy, innovative newsroom with experienced editors committed to teaching and helping young journalists advance their careers."
That said, it's clear that IT workers are being hurt as much as anybody by the practice. A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of moderating a discussion on IT employment issues at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. One of the participants was Dr. Norm Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis who's best known as an outspoken critic of the H-1B visa program. Matloff is not only bright, but he's a genuinely good guy, and he's made an invaluable contribution to the healthy advancement of the H-1B discussion.
Matloff is also outspoken on the issue of age discrimination. In response to my question about whether the premise that there is a shortage of IT workers in the U.S. is fact or fiction, this is what he had to say:
"You can look at it in terms of salaries -- they're not going up. There was a BusinessWeek study that found that starting salaries for computer science and electrical engineering graduates, adjusting for inflation, are on the downswing. There is no study, other than those made by the industry, that has established a shortage, even during the dot-com boom. The problem is that people are not willing to hire who's out there, and largely it's a matter of money. That, in turn, becomes a matter of age -- older people cost more. They cost more in salary, they cost more in benefits. The whole thing about [there being a shortage because of] baby boomers retiring is kind of ludicrous, because almost nobody gets to retirement age in this business. After you reach age 40 or even age 35, you find yourself becoming less employable. I'm talking about my specialty, which is software development, so everything I said holds to that group. HR doesn't know what to do with that mountain of applications. They vet people out, and the age issue is central -- it's a way to filter out the older people. Eminently qualified people can't even get an interview. It amounts to legalized age discrimination."
That the pain of age discrimination felt by IT workers is being shared by people in other occupations is little consolation. But for what it's worth, HR reps may be starting to feel the pain, too.
My wife, an HR executive whose credentials include an MBA and certification as a Senior Professional in Human Resources, has been unemployed for almost a year. At 56, she has applied for countless jobs and only rarely gets even as far as a first interview. She's sharp, dynamic, has a superb track record and has aced the few interviews she's landed. Yet she's gotten nowhere, and she can't help but wonder whether her age is a factor. I, for one, hope that when she does get a job, it's at a place that needs to hire a lot of IT professionals. At least the older applicants would be assured that she knows how it feels.