What price experience? Tackling IT ageism

Many older IT professionals are finding that employers favour youth over experience and wisdom. However, new laws could force...

Many older IT professionals are finding that employers favour youth over experience and wisdom. However, new laws could force them to change their ways.

"Recruiting companies seem wrapped up in young, dynamic, highly intelligent people rushing forth to transform the world - a highly dubious and unlikely occurrence," said Peter Windle, a 65-year-old HP-Unix administrator, who is convinced there is a lot of ageism in the IT industry.

When it comes to older IT professionals, Windle said he has had his fill of "trite remarks about lack of flexibility and higher wage requirements, which are all trotted out without any justification". He is not alone.

Richard Cunningham, a 46-year old-systems engineer who admits to feeling "over the hill" in the current IT jobs market, said, "I was made redundant along with about 100 others in May 2002 when my employer went into administration. I was working in the billing department of a telecoms operating company.

"Most of my colleagues found new work quite quickly, but I have had a different experience.

"I can't prove it, but I have a strong feeling that age, experience and pay have a real bearing on my employability. I suspect that employers may see too much experience and too large a pay packet."

These frustrations are shared by Peter Walker, a 56-year-old developer in Unix, C and SQL, who was also made redundant last year.

"I have applied for 123 jobs since then. Most of these have been via specialist recruitment agencies. Only 33 of my applications have even been acknowledged," he said.

"My CV makes no reference to my age but it does show 20 years' experience in IT. I only apply for jobs where I have a good skills fit with the advertised requirements. Quite frequently, the consultant receives my CV and calls me to say 'You have excellent skills, I will submit your CV'. I then hear nothing and they do not return my calls.

"It feels like the front page of the CV attracts them, but once they turn over and see the job history, forget it."

These are just a selection of the ageism-related e-mails to hit the Computer Weekly inbox in the past few weeks.

Many middle-aged IT professionals feel that they are being overlooked in a job market where competition is fierce. Although they have the skills and experience, in many cases, they find that the door of opportunity is closed.

This debate on age discrimination in IT has built up a new head of steam since the government published a consultation document in June with the aim of creating legislation to stamp out ageism in the workplace.

Under the new legislation, offending companies will be liable to uncapped penalties which will affect every aspect of employment practice, including recruitment, selection, training, development, redundancy and retirement.

Consultation will continue until next year when draft regulations should become available. Employers will be given two years to get their house in order before the legislation is expected to come into force around October 2006.

However, after conversations with several legal experts, it becomes apparent that one major problem with accusations of age discrimination is that they are very difficult to prove.

According to Derek Kemp, chairman of employment law consultancy Human and Legal Resources, the consultation paper indicates that if cases go to a tribunal the onus will be on the employer to show it has not discriminated against the employee.

"The law will aim to formalise the idea that employers are guilty until proven innocent," Kemp said. "They will have to show that they chose someone over somebody else for reasons other than age.

"It will not be good enough to say something along the lines of 'we are a young and vibrant team and thought the younger candidate would fit in better.' Imagine substituting the word 'younger' for 'male'."

Dennis Taylor, who works in the equality and diversity unit at law firm DLA, points out that, unlike other anti-discriminatory laws such as the Race Relations Act or the Sex Discrimination Act, the consultation paper outlines scenarios where employers will be allowed to make judgements based solely on age.

"There will be situations where placing age limits on job vacancies will be justified, but only in specific circumstances such as where health and safety is a real issue. This could apply to air traffic controllers or jobs where a lot of manual work is required," he said.

But in general, the law will force employers to set out objective criteria and job descriptions for recruitment and promotion purposes and ensure employees are tested fairly against these competencies.

"You would be surprised how many companies have no paperwork to back up decisions they made about employees when called to a tribunal. Many seem to rely on gut instinct," said Taylor.

"The new law should simply ensure that employers are carrying out good human resources management - something HR practitioners have been preaching for years."

Most IT professionals, especially contractors, have found their jobs through recruitment agencies. These agencies can act as a filter between the employer and the potential employee and decide which candidates get the interview.

Many of the letters and e-mails received by Computer Weekly point to recruitment agencies as the hub of age discrimination in the IT industry.

Unsurprisingly, none of the agencies we talked to admitted to practicing ageist policies, although there is a broad acceptance that IT is generally regarded as a young person's game.

"Coming off the back of the dotcom era, there was an idea that the typical ITer was young and funky and wore combat trousers. A small cultural revolution happened which probably did not sit well with the typical 50-year-old," said Jon Butterfield, director of recruitment agency Best International. "But today, when cutting costs is paramount, especially in the contractor market, decisions are made based on price. If anything, the industry is 'priceist'."

Butterfield estimated that rather than being an ageist market, the recent nosedive in IT job vacancies has hit all age groups. "Volumes are down across the board," he said. "It is highly competitive and there are just as many 20-year-olds without work as there are 40-year-olds."

He thinks that IT's ageist reputation is a legacy of the boom years when young and hungry wheeler-dealers gravitated to the IT recruitment industry with the sole purpose of making a fast buck.

"In the 1990s, a lot of youngsters were thrown at hardcore sales roles and, in some quarters, a 'pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap' mentality developed. That has damaged the industry as a whole," said Butterfield.

"Things have changed substantially since then. Our clients have become more sophisticated and staff are much better trained. From a purely commercial point of view, it makes sense to treat more mature IT professionals fairly. They are our clients of the future and, if we treat them well, they will come back to us when they need to recruit more staff. I think the industry thinks a lot more 'long-term' than 'today'."

An industry growing up and developing a more professional approach to recruitment is a theme picked up by Paul Smith, self-styled oldie at 55 and group marketing director at IT recruitment agency Harvey Nash.

"The IT technology market is seen as a young market by young people, but that perception is changing as the industry grows up. Remember, it only hit mass market less than 30 years ago," he said.

Smith said being successful in IT today is more about what skills you have rather than what age you are.

"Our biggest problem is looking for the right skills and people," he said. "The skills requirements are changing all the time and the industry has lost some good people and wise heads because they have let their skills get out of date.

"Three years ago, if you were proficient in NT and Windows 2000 you could walk into a job, but now people with Windows 2000 are two a penny.

"If people are between jobs and they can afford it, I would recommend maintaining their skills through self-study to increase their employment chances."

Everybody we talked to for this article agreed that any forthcoming anti-ageism legislation was a good thing.

Butterfield would welcome any legal recognition of an uneven playing field. "Racism, ageism and sexism should all be stamped out - it is about the ability to do the job and nothing else," he said.

Lawyers are particularly enthusiastic. Kemp predicted "interesting times ahead" and Taylor expects the law to make little difference to employers already practicing equal opportunity policies, but thinks it will act as a wake-up call for employers who still have their head in the sand.

At the age of 56, ITdeveloper Walker greets the imminent legislation with world-weary cynicism. "I applaud any attempt to stamp out ageism, but I do not believe that the new laws will change anything."

New laws on the age of retirement       

The Age Consultation document states, "Retirement ages set by employers for employees will be unlawful under the directive, unless objectively justified."  

This means that, in some cases, employers will still be able to set a retirement age based on an assessment of whether employing people beyond a certain age poses a risk to safety, such as in the cases of police officers or airline pilots. 

The Department of Trade & Industry is also asking for comments on setting a default age of 70 at or after which employers could require employees to retire without having to justify their decision.  

Employers would still be free to continue employing people beyond the age of 70. The alternative is to leave the retirement age open and allow employers to have individual agreements with their employees.

Read more on IT jobs and recruitment