VSJ – June 2007 – Work in Progress

You may recall that, a while ago, we introduced to you the IAP Panel, a group of experienced Fellows whom we consult to distil an IAP View on political issues affecting IT for publication on the Civil Service Web site. We’re reprinting here the first fruit of their deliberations.

The IAP View: Ageism

The IT industry has long had a poor reputation for its recruitment policies in relation to the age of applicants. On the one hand, it has been common for employers to insist on several years’ experience of a specific programming language or software tool (sometimes even a specific version). On the other, the technical press is full of letters from very experienced IT professionals who are unable to find employment, often being told they are ‘too experienced’.

IAP members fall on both sides of the employer/employee divide. Some are CIOs in large organisations. Others run successful IT companies. So, given the recent Age Discrimination legislation, we thought it would be interesting to canvass our Panel on whether the industry’s reputation is fully deserved and how the legislation might affect it.

Those who fall on the employee side did indeed report difficulties in finding new openings after they reached 50 or thereabouts. This was not solely in the context of full-time posts. Contracting work, a staple of the IT business for many years, has also become more difficult to obtain. Some suggest, anecdotally, that this may be an effect of the trend towards outsourcing.

The employers were emphatic that they did not discriminate on age (only competence) and that they commonly employed staff older than themselves. Now, before we all adopt the Mandy Rice-Davies philosophy (“They would say that, wouldn’t they?”) it’s worth bearing in mind that the employers in the canvassed group do not have large staffs. So they are able to involve themselves directly in the recruitment process. This allows them to take what might appear to a Human Resources department or a recruitment agency as huge risks. It’s rather like the old adage that no one ever got sacked for buying IBM kit. It was reliable and so was the company. Risks were minimal and everyone could sleep soundly in their beds. But, of course, you might be paying over the odds for the privilege. The recruitment process has similarities. If you want a C# programmer, the safe thing to do is specify that the successful applicant will have x years’ experience working in C#. (Or it was safe – now it’s illegal!) But specialist recruiters who are themselves experienced programmers will know, faced with a particular applicant, whether his or her background in C++, VB.NET or whatever is appropriate for their needs. So, not only is this not a risk for them, but they get to look at a bigger talent pool.

This goes some way to explain the apparent contradiction that, at one and the same time, experienced staff are complaining that they can’t find jobs and employers say they can’t get suitable employees. The contradiction is not a mere curiosity; it is dangerous. It may lead to Government issuing more work permits than necessary, for example.

Both employers and employees agreed on one thing: they did not see legislation as an effective solution. Employees felt it would be difficult, maybe impossible, to enforce. For example, the fact that a specific length of experience will no longer appear in advertisements does not perforce eliminate the idea from the employer’s mind. Employers saw it as a further administrative burden, especially as they didn’t see it as altering their recruitment behaviour at all.

It’s been argued that the combination of a minimum experience requirement and a perceived maximum age limit has led to an ‘IT life’ of as little as 25 years and that this has contributed to the lack of interest shown by school leavers in an IT career. The Panel was largely sceptical of this argument, not least because school leavers don’t have this kind of overview. However, it led to a discussion about education and training that will form the basis of a future IAP View.

The Panel’s composition isn’t set in stone. If you’d like to contribute, let us know. Email the Director General at dg@iap.org.uk.

[Interesting project or development? Let us know at eo@iap.org.uk!]

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