HR perpetuates the myths of IT ageism

"Too old to work and too young to retire." That's what Geoffrey Williams, 55, says of his employment prospects in IT, despite having 15 years' experience in the industry. Not that Williams doesn't want to work - far from it.

Three years ago, Williams took redundancy from a council that was constantly downsizing its operations. He made the move partly because of financial incentives for staff who left, and partly because he feared his position would become untenable as a result of the council's financial problems.

Also, with his experience in network and PC support, he presumed it would be easy to find a new job.

"When I left my last full-time, long-term employment at the age of 52, I was naive enough to think that I would be snapped up by another employer within a few weeks, or months at most," says Williams. "I thought my skills and experience were sufficiently impressive.

"Three years down the line, with less than six months' of contract work under my belt, I know better. Agencies and companies can protest all they like that they do not discriminate, but bitter experience has shown the truth of the matter. Blatant age discrimination is keeping many career IT professionals out of employment."

Williams knows that his marketability very much depends on having an up-to-date skills base, so he has invested a lot of time and money in self-training.

"I have gained various certifications in order to maintain my skills, all at my own expense. I have done some Microsoft Certified Professional courses, mainly in Windows NT, which are supposedly the key to further employment. They are hardly worth the paper they are written on."

Many senior IT professionals finding it hard to get work think that recruiters and HR departments assume that newer skills are the preserve of the younger generation.

However, research shows that maintaining a marketable set of skills is a top priority for ITers of all ages, and that workers are constantly looking to update their skill set. But, like Williams, many have found that it makes little difference, because their age still counts against them.

Recent research carried out by The Open University Business School, as part of the £1m European Social Fund-financed, Map>IT (Mature Professionals into IT) project, managed by the E-Skills National Training Organisation, showed that a large proportion of IT employers still target young people. It also found that a lot of this discrimination seemed to be occurring at the recruitment-procedure and HR level.

Alan McCarthy, marketing director at IT services and management firm Pink Elephant, agrees that the industry seems to disregard older ITers in favour of their younger counterparts.

"There is the perception that you need young people who are able to learn new things," he says. "Yet the capabilities of older people are equally as good and, for people who work in IT, learning new things is the nature of the role. Moreover, experience counts for a lot. We are currently looking for 30 consultants and for that kind of role we need people with five years' plus within the IT industry."

McCarthy hopes the industry is becoming less ageist, as recruiters realise that ITers with experience are an invaluable asset -Êand that they are needed at boardroom level.

As IT becomes an increasingly important part of business, not having the right people in place could be disastrous for companies.

According to McCarthy, this is particularly true in the new economy. He says that to get funding dotcoms will need to show that they have professionals with proven experience and skills onboard. "The market and venture capitalists are demanding it," he says.

A recent study by The Industrial Society found that new businesses set up by people in their 50s, who have a wealth of experience to draw upon, are actually twice as likely to succeed as those started by people in their early 20s.

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