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Outdated as the mainframes they program?

Experienced computer programmers say age, more than ability, is keeping them from getting jobs in an industry searching for workers.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 27, 1999


After more than 25 years as a computer programmer, Chris Clement considers his background solid but his job prospects uncertain -- even though hundreds of thousands of jobs in his field are open across the country.

The problem: Clement works on mainframe computers, the big, powerful computers used by businesses. As Y2K work winds down, as businesses change to PC-based "server" systems, and as new programming languages are developed, veteran programmers such as Clement are finding it harder and harder to get steady work.

"For the first time in a long time, there's a surplus (of programmers available) on mainframe and there's competition" for jobs, said Warren L. Rodgers, president of Computer Specialists Inc., a Tampa recruiting company for computer workers.

Finding the right match between people such as Clement and the estimated 400,000 open high-tech jobs in the United States is not as easy as it would seem. Experts say that to improve their employment prospects, people such as Clement need to update their skills and possibly take a pay cut while they are learning.

Clement says he would be happy to try, but he needs a chance to prove his mettle and earn a sufficient wage at the same time. And he suspects his "big box" mainframe training isn't all that is being held against him.

"My suspicion is (that it's) more of an age thing," said Clement, 53, of Ozona, who has tried a variety of strategies to get steady work since his last programming job ended in February.

Among other things, Clement tried to start a placement service for Tampa Bay area programmers, which didn't go anywhere. He continues to try to build a business out of the rights he owns to an automated electric metering system, but has little to show for his efforts so far ("I'm not a salesperson"). And he has picked up some temporary work to keep income flowing.

Clement is not alone in suggesting that age plays a role in his job-hunting problems. Numerous retired and semi-retired programmers who tried to get back in the business to help with Y2K work found few or no jobs. It led to the creation of SeniorTechs (www.seniortechs.com), a referral service in Campbell, Calif. It has a database of 15,000 older programmers looking for work.

Clement is among them because programming is what he knows, what he loves and what he wants to do. And he figures he should have 10 years of productive working time left before he considers retirement.

With Clement's permission, Tech Times showed his resume to members of the Tampa Bay CIO Council, a group of chief information officers that includes of some of the area's largest companies. Their reactions:

* "I don't have time to read this," said Trudy Barker, president of Leap Frog Group Inc. in St. Petersburg, an e-commerce consulting company. She was glancing at Clement's resume, which takes more than two pages to list his extensive experience. Barker and others noted that resumes need to get executives' attention quickly, summarizing skills, experience and salary requirements.

* Patrick Camm, senior vice president of high-tech consulting firm Econotech, who was visiting from Nashville, Tenn., said all of the experience Clement listed was on mainframes. Camm suggested that a programmer might offer his services to a company at a lower salary for six months to show he can work on other platforms, then negotiate for more pay once he establishes credentials at that company.

"They're used to making big bucks," said Camm, himself a former mainframe programmer. By focusing only on mainframes, "they close the door on a lot of opportunities themselves."

* Companies hire younger workers at lower pay not because of age, but because they have more flexible skills, can pick up programming languages faster and can contribute to the business faster.

* The bay area companies agreed that they're having a tough time filling their high-tech positions.

Rodgers of Computer Specialists Inc. said a third of the companies he works with are offering incentive bonuses for new hires, and companies such as Jabil Circuit and Tech Data hold their own job fairs to attract people.

Rodgers said companies in the CIO council had a turnover rate for technology employees of only 9.3 percent in 1997, but almost 20 percent last year. Much of the turnover, he said, is coming from hiring people away from other companies.

He estimates that two-thirds of people in the computer industry are not actively looking to change jobs, so companies and recruiters have to seek them out. He told the story of a woman, "an outstanding network professional," who wanted to change jobs. She had four interviews in five days and three offers.

But a third of the placements he makes fall through because the candidate gets counteroffers.

"Big companies take time to get through the (hiring) procedure," Rodgers said, "and a lot of people aren't willing to wait around."

Told of their comments, a discouraged Clement said, "If these people can't find a place for me, I've got to think about another career."

At one point Clement offered to work for one company for lower pay, but nothing panned out. He doesn't think it's that difficult to learn other programming languages, having dabbled with some on various assignments.

"There's more of a learning curve associated with learning the business, the business setting and applications," Clement said.

"I have a solid experience base and formal training," Clement said. "I'm finding out now that formal training doesn't count much."

Not so, says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group whose members include International Business Machines Corp., Electronic Data Systems Corp., Oracle Corp., Microsoft Corp. and other makers of high-tech equipment.

"It's harder to take someone with no background and turn them into programmers than to take someone who has been and update their skills," Miller said. "Companies, we believe, are more than willing to hire people with skills."

Miller said his group has found no evidence of age discrimination in surveys or government reports. The industry's needs are evident, with 10 percent of the jobs vacant, 40 percent of the companies responding to a survey saying the job picture was worse than last year, and 130,000 new programming jobs created every year.

So the association is encouraging workers to keep skills updated through programs at community colleges, vocational education programs and for-profit training programs, as well as through companies setting up their own training programs.

The number of college students choosing computer science programs has increased after a falloff in the late '80s and early '90s, Miller said. "We have to hope that these students who are now enrolling in larger numbers and indicating they're going to be majors stick with it."

And Miller said while average pay for U.S. workers has been rising about 3 percent a year, the computer industry has seen wages increase at a double-digit clip -- with no end in sight.

The most Clement earned as a programmer was $37.50 an hour as a contract worker. He prefers to take higher pay on a temporary job, where he's responsible for insurance and other benefits normally provided by the employer, than lower pay on a regular job.

Now, he's willing to look at any alternative, such as a recent job working as an electrician.

"We don't buy things like we used to," Clement said. "We don't go to the malls any more."

His wife works part-time, they've eliminated debt and they pay cash for what they need.

"I don't think we've lost any dignity," Clement said. "I don't associate wealth with dignity at all."

- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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