High-tech companies shun older job-seekers

Hiring: Despite qualifications, applicants over 40 years old lose out to new college grads.

August 22, 1999|By HEARST NEWSPAPERS

WASHINGTON -- Gene Nelson, a computer programmer, has been looking for work for two years. High-technology companies say they desperately need computer programmers. It would seem like a perfect fit.

But Nelson has had only a few interviews and no job offers.

A holder of a doctorate in biophysics who has been programming computers since the early 1970s, Nelson has sent out hundreds of resumes and attended dozens of job fairs. He has lowered his salary sights from $50,000 to $40,000. Now, he says the mid-$30,000 range would be fine.

Knowing the dynamic nature of the high-technology industry, Nelson has been careful to update his skills and has taught himself several computer languages. "I have the education, the experience and the skills, but I never seem to be the person they're looking for," he says from his home in Carrollton, Texas.

Nelson scoffs at the claim of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), an organization representing technology companies, that there are 400,000 unfilled software engineering and computer programming jobs in the United States.

"There's no shortage of high-tech workers," Nelson says. "There's a shortage of high-tech workers under the age of 35."

William Payson, who runs SeniorTech Inc., a Campbell, Calif.-based company that helps high-technology workers over 35 find jobs, agrees. There is "out-and-out discrimination" in the industry against older engineers, according to Payson.

"Most companies don't want older workers, and the managers make sure these people are not hired," he says.

He says companies want young, cheap workers fresh out of college who are willing to work 12-hour days for half the salary expected by more experienced workers.

The statistics show the trend. Four out of five employed programmers are 44 years or younger, according to the ITAA.

Industry representatives say part of the reason for the low number of older programmers is that many of these workers migrate to sales and management positions after working for a company for several years.

John Palafoutas, spokesman for the American Electronics Association, a Washington-based group representing electronics companies, says companies would like to hire older engineers but that they often lack the "cutting-edge" skills needed for jobs.

But Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at University of California at Davis, says: "It's not about who has the `cutting edge' skills. This is about who costs less -- people with experience or people without experience."

Qualified workers can be quickly trained in new computer languages -- usually in less than two months, Matloff says.

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