How to avoid losing your IT job to cheaper rookies

You’ve been in the IT industry for 30 years, gaining knowledge and experience that’s valuable to you and your employers at every step. Now we’re in a recession and a new crop of younger, perhaps techier, and definitely less expensive employees are entering the workforce. Should you be worried about losing your job?

Read related article: Creative strategies to avoid layoffs in difficult times

It’s a fair question, but asking it doesn’t mean resigning oneself to getting laid off. There are plenty of advantages older IT workers bring to the table that can help ensure they stay employed through the recession and beyond.

“You need to consider the value you bring to the organization that a younger person might not, and in particular you need to think about how can you be a resource to help develop the younger members of the staff,” says Jim Michael, a 51-year-old who is associate director of IT at California State University, Fresno.

Diversity in technical backgrounds, skills, personality and sometimes in age are the traits that CIOs generally want in their staff, Michael says.

A CIO probably wouldn’t want an entirely young staff, because the experience of older workers can help the young avoid the same problems faced in the senior employees’ youth. A staff made up entirely with people who have 30 or 40 years experience is a problem too, particularly if company officials are thinking about the long term and want younger workers to learn from their elders and eventually replace them.

Learning about new technologies like virtualization and cloud computing will help the older worker stay relevant.

But mentoring the younger set about what you already know is also an important method of showing value to your company. “My advice to older colleagues is don’t guard your knowledge,” Michael says. “Don’t protect the special things you know so you can continue to have a different level of value to the organization. Share them, because in fact that’s even more valuable.”

Age discrimination has long been a problem in the workplace, but with the economy in turmoil accusations of age discrimination are becoming more common. The number of individuals filing age discrimination complaints rose from 19,103 in fiscal 2007 to 24,582 in fiscal 2008, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That’s a year-over-year increase of 29 per cent, nearly twice the increase observed when all types of job discrimination charges are added together.

Many of these allegations are being lodged in the wake of layoffs, as companies often get rid of the highest-paid staffers to cut costs.

Despite the soaring numbers of age bias complaints, the nation’s unemployment rate for young workers is higher than for those older than 40, the Wall Street Journal notes. Workers must be at least 40 to file age-discrimination complaints.

In any case, there are numerous strategies an older worker can use to remain valuable to one’s organization and survive a round of layoffs, says Janice Weinberg, a former IT pro and career consultant, and author of “Debugging your Information Technology Career: A Compass to New and Rewarding Fields that Value Computer Knowledge.” 

Specifically, Weinberg offers five tips to older IT workers:

1. Learn new technologies that you don’t use in your current job but that are used elsewhere in the company. The new technologies will be different depending on your position. A networking executive may want to learn different skills than someone in systems development, for example. Checking job listings for jobs similar to the one you have now can identify technologies used by your counterparts at other companies.

Of course, you want to let your manager know about your newly learned skills, but you don’t want to give the impression that you were learning new technologies on company time.

“The optimal time, in my opinion, to let your manager know would be shortly after you’ve received an excellent performance appraisal,” Weinberg says.

2. “Show your manager how your experience with the company’s legacy systems can be an advantage in planning and implementing conversions to new systems,” Weinberg says.

If a company is considering upgrades of legacy systems, an older worker familiar with the systems may want to do some research and prepare a cost/benefit report analyzing the company’s internal legacy systems and prioritizing which ones should be converted to newer technologies. Make sure your manager knows exactly how your years of experience with the legacy systems will help guarantee a successful migration to modern-day technologies.

This strategy will let older workers “demonstrate their in-depth knowledge, which might reinforce the impression that their involvement would be vital if the company undertakes the conversion,” Weinberg says.

3. “Leverage your long-term relationships with co-workers assigned to other divisions or product lines to get on the candidate slates for positions in their groups,” Weinberg says.

During a recession, companies are closely evaluating business units, deciding to ramp up development on the most successful ones and phasing out those that are not doing well. If an older worker has been with the same company for many years, he will likely have longstanding relationships with co-workers in other divisions within the company and can use these contacts to transfer to more vital parts of the company.

Don’t forget the simple ways of maintaining the relationships that might prove beneficial, Weinberg says. “Make a point of having lunch with people occasionally,” she says. “Informally exchange information and let them know your interests and skills.”

4. Older workers should use past experience in selecting software vendors to save the company money. This may not be possible if your company has an asset manager who takes care of all software contracts. That being said, an older worker may have experience in selecting vendors that his younger counterparts lack, and should try to understand how current licensing terms can be improved to benefit the company.

“Someone who is more experienced is more likely to have had the responsibility of doing vetting of software products and getting involved in negotiations,” Weinberg says.

Software negotiations could be especially important in a recession, she notes. Say your company has a contract allowing 500 users of a product, but then lays off many of those users. The contract terms should be revised to reflect the existing reality and save the company money, Weinberg says.

5. Start an internship program. Older workers are likely to have keen knowledge of the problems caused by understaffing, and can use their experience to improve customer satisfaction while saving the company money.

Just about every company has areas that are understaffed, even if they haven’t had layoffs, Weinberg says.

To solve this problem, an older worker with supervisory experience could establish an internship program with a local college. Identify the areas of the company that could benefit from entry-level skills, and bring on a few interns to supply zero- or low-cost help.

Before setting up such a program, you should check with your company’s internal insurance manager to understand the legal implications of having interns on the premises. But if successful, such a project would show management your ability to improve the company’s operations without adding to its costs.

In general, Weinberg says older workers must show their companies how their work has a positive impact on financial results.

Fortunately, she says, many companies already properly value the contributions of older workers, and accept the fact that they make more money than their younger counterparts.

“There are a lot of companies, especially in the computer industry, who have come to appreciate the fact that the continuity of knowledge experienced people have is of considerable value,” Weinberg says.

Michael says older workers should consider the cultural differences between themselves and the younger generation, who use all sorts of methods to collaborate, whether it’s a social networking site, instant messaging or Skype. Embracing new collaboration tools is important, he says.

But when it comes down to it, Michael believes there are few fundamental differences between young and old in the IT industry.

The passion for technology “motivates the older IT workers just as much as the younger IT workers,” he says.

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