Discrimination Runs Rampant in the High-Tech World

 By Mark Helm


Friday, August 20, 1999

1999 San Francisco Examiner

Older engineers claim discrimination runs rampant in the high-tech world

WASHINGTON - Gene Nelson, an experienced computer programmer, has been looking for work for two years. High-tech 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 Ph.D. 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-tech industry, Nelson has been careful to update his skills and has taught himself several computer languages, including Java. "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 high-tech firms, that there are 400,000 unfilled software engineering and computer programming jobs in the United States. Nelson and other programmers say high-tech companies could find plenty of engineers if they were willing to hire older workers. "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-based company that helps high-tech workers over the age of 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. Profile of the work force

The statistics show the trend. Four out of five employed programmers are age 44 years or younger, according to the ITAA. High-tech 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. They also say that as programmers get into their 30s and 40s, many of them are unwilling to work the 12- and 14-hour days that are common in the computer software industry.

John Palafoutas, spokesman for the American Electronics Association, a Washington-based group representing electronics companies, says firms would like to hire older engineers but that they often lack the "cutting-edge" skills needed for current jobs. "With the speed of this industry, companies simply don't have time to train people for six months before they start work on a project," he says. Palafoutas and other employer representatives say the lack of skilled workers threatens the health of the industry.

They point to a 1998 U.S. Commerce Department study predicting that the information technology industry will need an additional 1.3 million skilled workers over the next decade. "If the talent drought continues, the entire national economy may feel the effect of lost wages and slowed innovation . . . and the competitive advantage that the United States has long held in technology may be at risk," the Commerce Department report said. Importing the young

The high-tech industry's call for more workers has been heard in Washington, where Congress is considering expanding a visa program that already allows tens of thousands of foreign computer professionals into the country each year.

The program, established in 1990 to allow high-tech companies to quickly bring in foreign workers with special skills, currently allows 115,000 workers into the country. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, has proposed raising the cap to 200,000, a move enthusiastically supported by the industry. "These workers are needed to ensure the growth of America's most important industries," Gramm says. "High-tech, highly skilled people create jobs. They don't take jobs away from Americans."

But engineering groups and computer experts say the visa program, known as H1-B, is a way for high-tech companies to import cheap labor and to avoid hiring experienced American workers. "It's not about who has the "cutting edge' skills," says Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at University of California at Davis.  "This is about who costs less - people with experience or people without experience," Matloff says. Qualified workers can be quickly trained in new computer languages - usually in less than two months, Matloff says. He adds that most of the foreign workers also need training in the latest skills.

A 1997 breakdown of Census Bureau data showed that 37 percent of college graduates in the U.S. work force were age 45 or older, according to the National Software Alliance, a Washington-based consortium of high-tech industry, government and academic representatives. But among computer scientists and programmers, only 23 percent were 45 and older. The over-55 age group constituted 12 percent of the total college-educated work force but only 5 percent of the information technologies field, the analysis showed.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a Washington-based group with 330,000 members, has found that for every year of age, it takes an unemployed engineer an average of two weeks longer to find a job. In other words, a 45-year-old is likely to stay unemployed 40 weeks longer than a job seeker who is 25.

Paul Kostek, president of the institute, says the industry's push for more foreign workers is simply a way to ensure a constant supply of young, cheap labor and to avoid retraining older workers. "Each year, a whole new crop of eager workers lines up at their door," he says. "It's great for (high-tech companies), but doesn't really do much for the American engineers."

For John Popescu, a computer scientist in San Francisco, an expansion of the H1-B program could mean that his two-year job search becomes much harder. Popescu thought his future was secure when he earned a computer science degree from S.F. State in 1992. But after turning 30 years old, he started to see a change in the attitude of prospective employers toward his resume. "All of the sudden, I didn't have the right experience, or the right skills," he said. The job offers slowed to a trickle.

 Now at 35, he has searched for more than two years for work but has had only a few interviews and no job offers to show for it. "I could understand not getting some of the jobs, but my background fits so many of the openings that I don't see how I could not be right for any of them," he says. Popescu worries that an increase in available foreign workers will make employers even more reluctant to hire older, American workers. "Why hire an experienced worker, when you can get another person who will work for half as much?" he says. Other dynamics at work

Robert Collins, executive vice president of InTECH Staffing, a national information technologies staffing firm in Dallas, Texas, says part of the problem is that companies want so-called "plug and play" professionals who can jump into a project immediately with no training. To find these people, he says, companies often "raid" other firms for workers with specific skills, he says. As a result, Collins says, companies worry that if they hire and train a person, that worker will take the knowledge to another firm after only a short time.

Kostek says that fear of losing workers is an important reason why employers favor H1-B workers. Under the program, the visa holders, who are allowed to remain in the country for up to six years, can work only for the firms that sponsor their H1-B visas. In addition, they must rely on their sponsor firms to process the paperwork needed to secure a green card, or work permits for immigrants, which eventually can lead to permanent citizenship - the goal of most H1-B workers.

According to Kostek, this means that firms have little fear that these workers will leave their employment, which allows the companies to train them without worrying about whether they will take a better job offer elsewhere. "Basically, these people are indentured servants, who serve out six-year terms," Kostek says. Searching for a future

For some engineers, the attitude of high-tech companies toward older, experienced workers has changed the way they view their future in the industry. P. Scott Horne, a 29-year-old computer programmer for a Minneapolis-based firm, says he has already started making plans to move into his company's management or sales divisions. "Staying in programming just isn't realistic," he says.

While he believes the move will allow him to remain a part of the industry, Horne says he and many other engineers and programmers who make the switch would prefer to stay in their chosen fields. "Going into management may seem like a step up, but it's really a step out," he says. "I didn't study computer science because I wanted to be a manager or salesman."

Matloff believes the often short careers of software engineers and programmers threatens the future of the high-tech industry. He says students considering electrical engineering or computer science degrees may decide to go into other professions that offer better long-term prospects. "You're going to find fewer and fewer people willing to earn a four-year degree that will get them a job for maybe 10 years, if that," he says.

Popescu agrees, saying he would advise college students to think twice about becoming a software engineer or computer programmer. "I'd say look at me," he says. "I'm 35 years old with a degree in computer science, and I can't even support myself."

1999 San Francisco Examiner