Is Tech Industry Guilty of Ageism?

Ann All

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.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jan 26, 2008 10:35 AM Progressive Geek Progressive Geek  says:
I was just at an in-person interview at Amazon.com. During the interview I was given an on the spot computer programming problem to solve. After solving the problem, I was told by the interviewer that I had the best solution he had ever seen during an interview. However, they didn't hire me for the position, most likely because I am over 40 (Amazon "has a policy to never tell their candidates why they didn't hire them").Seems to me that Amazon really isn't interested in the "Best and the Brightest". They are interested in the "Youngest and the Cheapest".progressivegeek.com Reply
Jan 26, 2008 5:48 PM wgorillaz wgorillaz  says:
A technology based lobby group in US, the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) wants United States Congress to drastically raise the annual cap on H-1B visas and give permanent residency to foreign nationals who graduate from U.S. colleges.An additional demand they had was related to backing trade policies which give companies unfettered access to the global market but I am not able to make much of it. Why will the US government restrict companies from doing business across the world? Unless of course the country in question is Iran or Cuba etc. (Thats what I thought initially but check out the analysis and answers below).http://www.techbanyan.com/archives/137 Reply
Jan 26, 2008 6:17 PM Madia Madia  says:
Interesting how some of the software giants and this group -Software & Information Industry Association- are basically threatening the government of the people of the United States that they will build R&D and training centers abroad if you don't expand the visa program. We'll folks theyve already been there and done that. There are three things that would eliminate that concept in a heartbeat - put a duty on foreign services, do away with L1, and H1b Visas, and see how fast all of these executive type folks find out how smart American workers really are and how many there are out there ready to work for a fair wage.http://www.madnamerica.com Reply
Jan 26, 2008 8:28 PM Questor Questor  says:
I have earned 3 college degrees , I am up to date on my MCSE certification classes, and I cannot find a IT job in this area. Are the jobs I seek too specialized? No, the problem is that I live in a region where IT outsourcing often shifts computer programming and tech support jobs overseas and decimates jobs here in the USA. Consequently, age discrimination is rampant in my geographiv region where I meet or exceed most companies education or work experience requirements, but most jobs are awarded to younger workers. Companies often use 3rd party IT recruiters to illegally screen out older workers.Recently, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) announced they are opening a 1000 person national HQ and datacenter 3 miles from where I live. However, Tata has a long track record of only hiring H1-b and L-1 visa workers. Recent court records show that over 90% of Tata's 12,000 employees in the USA are comprised of H1-b and L-1 visa employees from foreign countries. IMHO, Tata has again misrepresented what their company does when they made claims to the state government that these 1000 jobs will pay an average of $29 per hour. Tata has not paid these wages in past areas they have located one of their Senior VPs is quoted in newspapers as declaring the real way Tata gets contracts and makes money is by preying upon employees and their wages. Tata's goal is to hire H1-b and L-1 staff at wages that are a minimum of 20% below area market wages and ship programming jobs overseas. Tata is currently being sued in a federal class action lawsuit by current and past employees for requiring they prepare all employee taxes, they overstate taxes withheld, and withholding all fedand state tax refunds from employees without their prior knowledge or permission. Other former employees claim Tata told them they would get a specified salary when they were recruited, but when they flew overseas, got through customs on their H1-b or L-1 visa, and stated working onsite - Tata supposedly lowered their salary without explanation. Predatory actions by companies such as Tata do not bode well for IT workers in the USA because the emplyment playing field is being unfairly tilted by IT outsourcing companies. Reply
Jan 27, 2008 6:47 PM Susan23432345 Susan23432345  says:
Mr. Vivek Wadhwa's argument that older workers don't keep up with their skills and therefore can't move up the ladder (and consequently loose their jobs to more flexible younger workers) is old, tired, and illogical and just plain wrong. Wadhwa is nothing but an apologist for the tech industry's biases and proponent for expansion of the H1-b program which is taking good-paying technology jobs away from Americans. Our economy is in the tank, unemployment is up and will probably go higher. Older workers have been pushed out of the tech industry in droves; many of them forced to take temporary jobs with no benefits if they find work in their field at all. Our college-educated children, unable to get their feet in the door at technology companies due to the flood of H1-b workers ALL whom seemingly miraculously have the two years experience that get them in, are working as waiters and bartenders. Our president's solution? Print more money. Did anyone suggest, sending the H1-B workers back to their home countries before the middle class disappears? Reply
Jan 28, 2008 8:23 PM ha ha  says:
I am surprised how ignorant Susan23432345 is!Mr. Wadhwa is not a proponent for expansion of the H1-b program. Please, read his research. He is a proponent of more Greencards for foreign students who are educated here in US most of them by US tax payers money. Majority of the new tech companies in Asia are started by students who were educated right here in the US but didn't wish to stay here waiting for a greencard for 10 years! Reply
Jan 30, 2008 10:35 AM phiakj phiakj  says:
I would have to disagree with the idea that older workers do not stay up with current technology. At my company, we are encouraged to stay current with the latest and greatest, and everyone realizes that if we don't, we could easily be replaced by someone just out of college. But, workers just out of college lack the business expertise and process knowledge to work efficiently, and have to learn that on the job...slowing down product deliverables or they end up releasing software with lots of defects.As far as the H1-b and L-1's, stop listening the the threats, force companies to comply with hiring laws, such as forcing them to hire US citizens for jobs where we meet the requirements...no matter the age. If age discrimination can be proven, then prosecution against those companies should take place. Maybe at that point, those companies would finally learn that employing US citizen, and those over 40 helps the US economy and their business. As far as foriegn work centers, tax companies that create these centers...per employee. At least that would help pay for their previous employees unemployement checks. Reply
Dec 6, 2009 11:29 AM Nick Nick  says: in response to Progressive Geek

Not necessarily!

Since you did go through the process, you must have met 5-8 people during the course of interview. So even though one of the interviewer did like you, its quite probable that some didn't. Also, just the ability to solve a problem is not the only parameter for extending an offer, your design skills, organizational skills, leadership skills, thinking out of the box skills, the ability to adapt and come up with a solution all play a major role in the final decision.

So even though you might have solved the problem, it does not necessitate an offer from Amazon.

As for the age of the interviewee, none of the interviewers know about it, nor is it a factor in any way. Hell, the company can be sued if that played any role. At Amazon its simple, either you make the cut or you don't.

Dec 23, 2010 2:42 PM Alex Alex  says: in response to Nick

Someone I know who is super qualified and over 55 made it through the Amazon 7 people interview only to be denied an IT job. HR said they could not give this person a reason for denial for "legal reasons". They don't want to be sued for age discrimination. The last person this person interviewed with was about 30 years younger. Also the job is still posted as available months later and the person who applied to this job resume is still under review. If this is not age discrimination, I don't know what is. Shame on Amazon.


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