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Recession hit older tech workers harder, labor data shows

Patrick Thibodeau and Sharon Machlis | Jan. 27, 2011
Unemployment rates for older IT workers increased during the recession faster than they did for younger employees, according to new U.S. government labor data obtained by Computerworld. But that's something that Maribeth McIntyre, an IT professional with some 30 years of experience, already suspected.

Nanci Schimizzi, the president of Women in Technology, a mentoring and advocacy group, said she knows a number of women who are 50 or older and are looking for work.

"They remain unemployed for long periods of time -- years -- to the point where many of them have more or less given up" and gone into alternate careers, said Schimizzi, who works in technology operations at an organization she asked not be named.

Four years ago, before the economic downturn, unemployment for computer and math professionals was 3.5% for men 55 and over and 4.2% for women the same age. The overall rate for younger professionals -- between the ages of 25 and 54 -- was just 1.7%.

Older workers, particularly when a company is changing its systems, can "find themselves highly paid, without the needed skills, and then they are the easiest targets," said Schimizzi.

Schimizzi said she isn't expecting the unemployment rate for older workers to decline, even when hiring picks up. If employers do hire older workers, it is likely to be for short-term contracts, she said. "I think full-time positions are going to be staffed from the younger workforce."

Al Williams, vice president of Share, an independent IBM user group and a director of IT at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., said people who are over 50 may face problems if they resist change. But the fact that they're likely to have higher salaries than their younger colleagues may put them at risk, too.

"I think the biggest risk in IT is we tend to define ourselves with the technology we like, rather than aligning ourselves with the strategies the business needs," said Williams.

Overall, the jobless rate for workers in computer and math fields was 5.2% last year, unchanged from 2009. Average unemployment for all professional occupations was 4.5%, with the lowest levels in the health and legal occupations, according to the government data. Architects and engineers had a higher unemployment rate, and those in the arts, entertainment, sports and media fared the worst.

IT job employment has been picking up, and the jobs that are most in demand favor young as well as older workers, according to Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), which runs a large IT skills certification program.

Thibodeaux says there is high demand for IT workers, particularly for those who can build mobile applications, work on a combination of security and cloud computing platforms, and handle cloud integration generally. People familiar with various cloud platforms, such as those run by Google, Amazon and Microsoft, as well as healthcare specialists and electronic medical records integrators, are also in demand.


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