Skip to comments.Silicon Valley’s Dark Secret: It’s All About Age (age discrimination in the tech sector)
Posted on 09/01/2010 8:33:44 AM PDT by a fool in paradise
An interesting paradox in the technology world is that there is both a shortage and a surplus of engineers in the United States. Talk to those working at any Silicon Valley company, and they will tell you how hard it is to find qualified talent. But listen to the heart-wrenching stories of unemployed engineers, and you will realize that there are tens of thousands who cant get jobs. What gives?
The harsh reality is that in the tech world, companies prefer to hire young, inexperienced, engineers.
And engineering is an “up or out” profession: you either move up the ladder or face unemployment. This is not something that tech executives publicly admit, because they fear being sued for age discrimination, but everyone knows that this is the way things are. Why would any company hire a computer programmer with the wrong skills for a salary of $150,000, when it can hire a fresh graduatewith no skillsfor around $60,000? Even if it spends a month training the younger worker, the company is still far ahead. The young understand new technologies better than the old do, and are like a clean slate: they will rapidly learn the latest coding methods and techniques, and they dont carry any technology baggage. As well, the older worker likely has a family and needs to leave by 6 pm, whereas the young can pull all-nighters.
At least, thats how the thinking goes in the tech industry.
In their book Chips and Change, Professors Clair Brown and Greg Linden, of the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed Bureau of Labor Statistics and census data for the semiconductor industry and found that salaries increased dramatically for engineers during their 30s but that these increases slowed after the age of 40. At greater ages still, salaries started dropping, dependent on the level of education. After 50, the mean salary of engineers was lowerby 17% for those with bachelors degrees, and by 14% for those with masters degrees and PhDsthan the salary of those younger than 50. Curiously, Brown and Linden also found that salary increases for holders of postgraduate degrees were always lower than increases for those with bachelors degrees (in other words, even PhD degrees didnt provide long-term job protection). Its not much different in the software/internet industry. If anything, things in these fast-moving industries are much worse for older workers.
For tech startups, it usually boils down to cost: most cant even afford to pay $60K salaries, so they look for motivated, young software developers who will accept minimum wage in return for equity ownership and the opportunity to build their careers. Companies like Zoho can afford to pay market salaries, but can’t find the experienced workers they need. In 2006, Zohos CEO, Sridhar Vembu, initiated an experiment to hire 17-year-olds directly out of high school. He found that within two years, the work performance of these recruits was indistinguishable from that of their college-educated peers. Some ended up becoming superstar software developers.
Companies such as Microsoft say that they try to maintain a balance but that it isnt easy. An old friend, David Vaskevitch, who was Senior Vice-President and Chief Technical Officer at Microsoft, told me in 2008 that he believes that younger workers have more energy and are sometimes more creative. But there is a lot they don’t know and can’t know until they gain experience. So Microsoft aggressively recruits for fresh talent on university campuses and for highly experienced engineers from within the industry, one not at the expense of the other. David acknowledged that the vast majority of new Microsoft employees are young, but said that this is so because older workers tend to go into more senior jobs and there are fewer of those positions to begin with. It was all about hiring the best and brightest, he said; age and nationality are not important.
So whether we like it or not, its a tough industry. I know that some techies will take offense at what I have to say, but here is my advice to those whose hair is beginning to grey:
My advice to managers is to consider the value of the experience that the techies bring. With age frequently come wisdom and abilities to follow direction, mentor, and lead. Older workers also tend to be more pragmatic and loyal, and to know the importance of being team players. And ego and arrogance usually fade with age. During my tech days, I hired several programmers who were over 50. They were the steadiest performers and stayed with me through the most difficult times.
Finally, I dont know of any university, including the ones I teach at, that tells its engineering students what to expect in the long term or how to manage their technical careers. Perhaps it is time to let students know what lies ahead.
Editors note: Guest writer Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic. He is a Visiting Scholar at the School of Information at UC-Berkeley, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School and Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University.
Wafer fab engineer, uppa 50’s few jobs available for nearly 4 years.
We’re still importing H-1Bs though...
or stay in cobol.
If you’re over 40 don’t both applying at google.
...plus the young worker won’t complain about having to come in on weekends or the size of his bonus check.
News flash - it ain’t just in Silicon Valley. Cash is king, and the ‘more mature’ engineer naturally gets more pay. I just ate my second pay cut in three years. At least I still have a job, unlike many.
SillyCon Valley is loaded with libs and they kick people over 45 to the kerb. Google is the worst. I have seen arrogant techies get older and then they get a shock.
They like the younger inexperienced engineers because they can work them like slaves!
“Even if it spends a month training the younger worker, the company is still far ahead.”
Yeah. Cuz an education in perl and java scripting can easily be transformed into in depth knowledge of industiral networking or fimrware in 6 months.
No problem... :)
Bill Gates needed his lower cost H1B workers. So he could make more money. So he could fund his foundation. So he could lobby the government to tax you more for things like socialized medicine (and outright push for death panels).
I loathe billionaire socialists like Gates and Soros who insist that I’m not paying enough taxes.
They are welcome to their wealth but they slit my throat to get it.
I have more problem with H1B discrimination. The Indian developers know they can rarely out-code their US counterpart so they get into management or the technical reviewer team to keep us out.
Sounds like the accounting profession. Shoosh, hire a pot full, work them to death and then rinse and replace. Nice, especially when you get to hire imports (see India, China). Would this have anything to do with CA financial problems?
Were still importing H-1Bs though...
That’s a travesty . .
As an “older guy” who was one of those Silicon Valley engineer-manager-executives and took “way out #1” — became entrepreneurial and therefore stayed gainfully employed — let me point out one other thing about aging engineers.
Far too many of them stopped learning, growing, being excited about new technology. Instead, they depend solely on their vast “experience” — and they tend to approach every problem in the same old way, with the same old solutions. They pattern-match each task with what they have done in the past, rather than examining every problem as a new one and selecting the **best** (new or old) technology to solve it.
In other words, they are big, heavy hammers and to them every problem looks like the nails they “used” to pound in with it. So pound they do, oblivious to the fact that THIS newfangled nail has SCREW THREADS on it and a phillips drive slot on top. :-)
This is not only an issue with engineers — it affects professionals of every stripe, from doctors to CPAs to lawyers.
Yes, and it is not just tech companies that operate like this. Some of this is due to the "professional" HR people and the exposure to the company for age discrimination lawsuits from older workers. And the higher composite insurance costs that go with an aging workforce.
Judgement and experience have a value to companies that many HR personnel cannot understand. What works, works. I can never remember a HR manager that I met with any operational experience.
Hope & Change.
Hope & Change.
What a load of B.S. I bet some outsourcing H1B pimping company sold them on that fantasy.
One person who works on my team is in their mid 60’s, they are one of the best people in my team.
You make up all of your posts, or just that one?
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