In today’s tight tech labor market, you can’t afford to knock any qualified candidate out of the running. And yet, age discrimination is more common than ever. By overlooking older workers, you might be losing real talent and experience that will help your organization.
The Older Tech Worker
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that older workers (age 55 and older) are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, especially those age 65 and older. They predict that, by 2024, over 30 percent of this group will be working in some capacity (in 1996, only 17.5 percent were in the workforce).
There are many reasons for this shift. True, the Baby Boomer generation is hitting retirement—but they don’t necessarily want to stop working. People are healthier and more active compared to 30 years ago, and have a longer life expectancy. They are more educated and have valuable skills. They may need the additional income to supplement their retirement savings. Or they just may like working.
Many older workers want to get back to the work that first drew them to tech, explained Patty Coffey, partner at tech-recruiting firm Winter Wyman: “I had a candidate who said to me, the worst thing I ever did was to become a CIO. That's when all the fun stuff went away.” These workers want to get back to what they really love, such as being a project manager, business analyst or developer.
The bottom line, Coffey added: “If you need a product to get out the door, you shouldn't be concerned at all with the age or number of years of experience of your developer. You want a good coder.”
This workforce tends to be more flexible, too. More experienced candidates, Coffey observed, tend to be more agile. They are typically not burdened by mortgages, school loans or family obligations: “You see a lot more flexibility because of where they are in their life.” Salary may not be the determining factor. Instead, it’s the whole package: the work, the company, benefits, the people they will work with, and the compensation.
As with any other candidate, discover their passion and discuss goals. The classic interview question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” applies to the older worker as much as the 25-year-old. However, some interviewers may shy away, fearing accusations of age discrimination. “When interviewing an older person, be honest,” advised Bryan Zawikowski, vice president at the Lucas Group. “Ask ‘What is it that you want? What do your next 10 years look like?’ It could be a great symbiotic relationship.”
What Experience Brings to the Table
Too often, hiring managers glance at the résumé of a more experienced, older candidate and think: “Overqualified. This isn’t going to work.” The underlying assumption, explained Sara Ferraioli, managing director of the Human Resources Division at Winter Wyman, is that the person won’t be satisfied or engaged, or will want more money. “All too often, we just assume that these individuals want those things and so we turn toward the person that has less experience. We’ve already assessed the person and their interest by seeing a piece of paper.”
But with that older candidate comes a whole host of valuable “soft skills,” such as problem-solving, change management, and managing others. And jettison the stereotype of the older worker who can’t adapt to new technology: These individuals have seen a lot of technological change in the past 20 years, they have adapted, and they continue to learn.
They are well connected too, Coffey pointed out: “Institutional knowledge, professional networks, these are things that you simply cannot get with five to seven years’ worth of experience. These come only with time and experience.”
The Value of Diversity
“As we think about increasing diversity in the workplace,” said career coach Rita Friedman, “bringing different approaches to problem solving and creative solutions, we should also embrace age diversity.”
Take the time to develop a cultural mission statement that will guide your hiring process, said Ryan Sutton, district president at Robert Half International. Ask: What is the culture we want? Most leaders and hiring managers say they want different ideas and opinions, a progressive culture, and people who are going to add insight and challenge us the right way. “The problem,” Sutton continued, “is that if you then only hire a certain segment of society, a certain segment of experience, you've contradicted your cultural mission statement.”
Diversity is not just about ethnic origin or gender, Coffey said. When building a team, you have to consider all aspects of diversity, including age and experience: “Say it's a team to implement an application. You don't want everybody to be really functionally strong. You want a functionally strong person, a technically strong person, an organized project driver, and somebody who's really good with change management. You want diversity in the skillsets.”
But Will You Respect Me?
A quiet, hidden fear of many hiring managers is that the older worker will not like reporting to a younger manager.
Coffey doesn’t see it that way. “In my experience, I don’t hear people saying, ‘I could not work for that person because they're younger than me.’ They don't care. They’re like, ‘What's the job? Let me do it. That's all I want to do.’”
A less experienced manager can also learn a lot from the older worker. If you’ve been around for a while, especially if you’ve had management experience, you’ve learned a thing or two about managing others, building teams and navigating organizational politics. More experienced hires can help develop others on the team too, which is a big help to younger managers in their first leadership role.
In the end, it comes down to the realities of the market, Ferraioli said. The candidate shortage is severe. “There are definitely opportunities that some employers miss because they're looking at someone's background just based on tenure or age.”