Maintaining employability of IT specialists over 50?

Training is the be-all and end-all

Despite the shortage of skilled workers, many IT specialists over 50 are asking themselves if they can remain in their profession until they reach retirement. Maintaining employability is the responsibility of employers and employees alike. The 'T' factor is immensely important here – as in 'T' for training. Read the article from Netcetera's CEO Andrej Vckovski, published in the July edition of the Swiss IT Magazine.

Sometimes a careless sound bite from an IT manager will make international headlines. This is what happened in late autumn 2012 when the Indian SAP manager V.R. Ferose proclaimed from Bangalore to the world: "The shelf life of a software developer is no longer than that of a cricketer – about 15 years. The 20-year-old guys contribute more to the company's success than the 35-year-olds." Ferose was 38 at the time. Although cynical, his statement reflects a widespread concern: Is it at all possible for people in IT to remain in their profession until retirement? Or do they get the chop at 50? Or perhaps even earlier? In Switzerland, two phenomena collide in the world of IT. The first: according to predictions, there will be a shortage of up to 25,000 specialists by 2024. The second: a study conducted in 2015 by ICTswitzerland and the Office for Economy and Labour of the Canton of Zurich ("Employability of unemployed computer scientists 45+" [Arbeitsmarktfähigkeit arbeitsloser Informatiker 45plus]) shows that the risk of unemployment for computer scientists rises steadily with age; by contrast, it falls with age on the whole for all occupations in Switzerland. In the IT sector, the unemployment rate in 2014 among 45 to 54-year-olds was 2.2 per cent and 3 per cent for the 55 to 64-year-olds (by comparison, the overall unemployment rate was 2.6 per cent in both age groups).

The "computer scientist" does not exist

Here's a newsflash: the "computer scientist" does not exist. The updated ninth edition of the IT professions standard reference book [Berufe der ICT] lists a total of 42 occupational profiles in the field of IT. This high degree of heterogeneity makes it difficult to determine exactly where there are shortages that could be remedied by employing specialists aged 50 and over, and where other reasons are to blame for the shortage. In an article published in the Swiss daily newspaper Tages-Anzeiger at the beginning of November 2016 – which addressed the lack of 25,000 IT specialists – a reader survey revealed the following: When asked the question, "How should the lack of computer scientists be remedied?", 22 per cent of readers felt that more people had to be trained, while 61 per cent believed that companies should hire computer scientists aged 55 and over. Popular opinion on this subject seems to be settled.

Guarantee the emergence of more new talent

It is definitely essential to keep skilled workers employed until retirement age in order to avoid a shortage of skilled labor (at least in part). A simple calculation could be used here: more "in" plus less "out" equals more "in" overall. Training more people while making sure that fewer people leave the profession will inevitably lead to more skilled workers being available. A key step towards the development more young talent – besides dual apprenticeships – is the new IT secondary school [Informatikmittelschule], which will open its doors to one class of pupils in Lucerne in August 2017.

Training is the be-all and end-all

There are many prejudices against senior employees, and not only in IT. Among other charges levied against them, they are said to be inflexible, too expensive, overwhelmed by the speed of technology and difficult to manage because they think they know better. According to detractors, their knowledge is outdated too. However, these prejudices are offset by a number of clear advantages: senior employees are more resilient, think in a more joined-up manner, do not fall for every hyped product and trend, know their business well and are more loyal. That said, without ongoing training, it is no longer possible for any employee to remain in their profession until retirement. Training is the be-all and end-all when it comes to keeping fit in a profession. Those who develop themselves can develop certain safeguards, i.e. training helps prevent a person from becoming obsolete, and the work from being outsourced or becoming automated. However, just as there is no such thing as "the computer scientist", neither is there any specific training that makes one untouchable. It is important that even in their initial training, people are taught and learn about how important it is to keep taking training courses and how and where this can best be done. The starting point for this is always professional curiosity – and this can take many forms. Those who only rake their garden of knowledge or look out at the world from their font of knowledge are ill equipped to deal with change. Those who say "I am the only one who really knows system X; nobody else can do what I can" are cutting their noses off to spite their face. At the same time, employers who think "Why should I put the young graduate on system Y; they would rather tackle our new blockchain IoT project with machine learning" are also shooting themselves in the foot in the longer term.

Invest in employees

Companies should offer their employees internal and external training options – it is much easier to invest in the good people you already have and to make them even better than to look elsewhere. A broader, de-specialized knowledge horizon is a good starting point for every employee when it comes to keeping fit in their profession. Conferences, workshops, e-learning, and exchanges with colleagues both inside and outside the company are a few ways to stimulate ongoing training. Often, it is also possible to adapt one's career path to one's changing interests. Here is an example: after university, a person starts working as a software developer. As the years progress, they become a project manager and increasingly start to take on more managerial tasks. In this case, ongoing training in management is a sensible option for specialized further training.

It takes everyone

However great the shortage of specialists may actually be, it is extremely short-sighted to think that a computer scientist has reached their expiration date when they reach the age of 50, especially given that demographic change is leading people to retire even later in life. Alternative working models (semi-retirement, curved career trajectories, etc.) will also have to come into play. It takes everyone. Of course, not everybody has to work for as long as legendary American computer scientist Donald "Don" E. Knuth, who retired as a professor at 79, but is still active as a computer scientist. What's one thing that distinguishes Don above all else? His insatiable thirst for knowledge. It is a trait worthy of imitation.

Source: Swiss IT Magazine, no. 07-08, July 2017

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