Is Tech Industry Guilty of Ageism?

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Should education and experience always command a high salary? It seems reasonable to think so -- yet older employees with advanced degrees may lack the specialized skills needed to satisfy rapidly changing market demand. In perhaps no field is this more true than the tech industry.


I recently conducted an e-mail interview with Norm Matloff, a professor at the University of California, Davis, who believes there is widespread age discrimination in the tech industry. (His busy schedule made it impossible to get Matloff on the phone.)


In particular, Matloff contends that the tech industry has manufactured a false talent shortage in order to push for more H-1B visas, which allow them to employ younger -- and far less expensive -- workers.


So I was interested to see Matloff's name mentioned in a BusinessWeek piece written by Vivek Wadhwa, who also has conducted some interesting research on outsourcing, immigration and related issues, some of which I've cited in prior blogs. In the article, Wadhwa voices an issue that receives little play in the tech industry (perhaps because of fear of litigation). He writes:

Tech companies prefer to hire young engineers. Engineering has become an "up or out" profession -- you either move up the ladder or you face unemployment. In other words, even though globalization has compounded the difficulties for aging engineers, it's not the culprit.

Wadhwa notes that tech start-ups simply cannot afford to hire experienced workers. To save money, they employ recent graduates or others willing to work for relatively low pay and then provide on-the-job training to expand their skills.


Even tech companies that can afford experience may find that younger workers better suit their needs, writes Wadhwa. He cites software patent firm Neopatents, whose CEO says younger workers tend to be more creative, flexible and schooled in the latest technologies. In contrast, the CEO says some older workers expect to be paid for their experience -- whether or not it is relevant to the job.


Interestingly, Google faces an age-discrimination suit brought against it by Brian Reid, its 54-year-old former director of engineering. Reid says older workers routinely get less favorable performance evaluations and lower bonuses at Google. While Google hasn't publicly offered a reason for Reid's dismissal, Reid also says he was told he was "a poor cultural fit" at the search giant.


Google does appear to place a high value on youth, as evidenced by its unconventional professional development program for associate project managers and its college campus-like work environment.


Wadhwa writes:

The harsh reality is that as engineers progress in their careers, they need to stay current in new technologies and become project managers, designers, or architects. To keep their jobs, engineers need to build skills that are more valuable to companies and take positions that can't be filled by entry-level workers.

Yet Matloff calls the skills issue "a red herring." He says:

Just look at the major tech firms that have admitted to replacing Americans by H-1Bs and L-1s, and then forced the Americans to train their foreign replacements. Clearly, it's the Americans who have the skills, not their foreign replacements. I've seen numerous cases of American programmers and engineers who have the skills being advertised but who never even get called for a phone interview.

Meanwhile, the tech industry is working to keep the H-1B visa and related immigration issues on the front burner. Ken Wasch, president of the Software & Information Industry Association, tells Infoworld that unless the U.S. loosens immigration restrictions, it will provide "an incentive for the industry to create knowledge centers outside the United States." The SIIA is asking Congress to raise the cap on H-1B visas and to make it easier for foreign nationals graduating from U.S. colleges to obtain permanent residency.