More Ruminations on the State of Greybeard IT

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Ed TittelEd Tittel

IT training and certification guru Ed Tittel advises those over 55 looking for work in IT.

I’ll admit it: if you take a look at my photo (right), you’ll see that my beard is at least grey, if not downright snow-white. I work in and around IT, so that makes me an exemplar of “greybeard IT.”

I’m 60, but still actively at work in the field, and still learning and using new tools and technologies all the time. I’m certainly not as fast, or as sharp as I once was, and I am now prey to the occasional “senior moment” when I have to grope to remember certain things, or activities, or appointments. Is that enough to make me a spokesperson for those baby boomers who, like myself, still work in (or around) IT? Probably not, but it does at least make me sensitive to the issues involved.

Once a month or more, I hear from somebody who’s over 55 and looking for work in IT, or still trying to advance an IT career. It’s tough for older folks like us to find new work, especially for those trying to reinvent themselves and squirrel their ways back into the job market at a lower entry point than they may have left it.

Today, I’d like to counsel those who are trying such maneuvers to expect something between outright skepticism and blatant disbelief that old dogs may be interested in learning (or performing) some new tricks. Alas, it’s not just natural for hiring managers and HR professionals NOT to question the sincerity, interest, and dedication of somebody who’s decided (for whatever reasons) to take a pay cut that might be as high as 50% of their last reported full-time salary to get back to work, or to change from one employment track to another.

How can those who walk this path deal with the situation?

I think it makes sense to attack such perceptions or beliefs head-on. If you don’t address them in a cover letter, be prepared to bring them up and address them yourself in any interviews you land. Given that employers have the option of hiring brand-new college graduates for some of the positions that may interest those baby boomers who seek to become “employment re-treads,” it may make sense to address the topic briefly in the cover letter, and then to have a longer story ready if and when an interview comes your way.

I’d consider saying something like “If you’re wondering why somebody with my background and experience is applying for this job, please let me explain. I have decided to devote my remaining working years to the pursuit of Windows app programming, and am quite happy to compete with other mid- and entry-level candidates for such jobs on an equal footing.

Luckily for me, three out of four of my grandparents lived past 88, and both of my parents made it past 90 (my Mom passed away in 2009, but my Dad is still active and managing his own finances at age 90). My health is excellent, so I think that means I can plan on working another 12 to 15 years full-time, and would hope to keep active in the field part-time into my 80s. That means I still have at least 12-15 years of full-time employment in front of me, and 20 or more years of ongoing work to anticipate as well. I intend to become expert in working with C#, the current .NET framework, and Visual Studio development, build, test, and maintenance tools.”

In case you’re wondering what makes my proposed scenario so specific, I heard from reader Tim H. last week, who proposed to return to work in IT as a programmer after the combination of retirement at age 58 as VP of IS at a medium-sized corporation and the deflation of his 401K over the past 5 years caused him to decide to return to work in hopes of rebuilding his nest egg, and re-feathering his already-impressive collection of employment accomplishments and accolades. To Tim, and others like him, I say “Good for you!” But after researching the situation that many older people seeking to re-enter the work force are facing, I’m also forced to think of better and more creative ways for them to meet those goals.

I recommended to Tim that he also consider working freelance, and I urge others in a similar set of circumstances to do likewise. There are plenty of online venues for advertising and hiring contract programmers (and other kinds of IT specialties) and these may offer better and brighter hopes of finding work than looking for a more conventional job.

The pros and cons are important to consider – you’re essentially trading whatever measure of security, pay, and benefits you can find in a conventional job these days against the ability to set your own hours, work at home, and take full responsibility for health and other forms of insurance out of your own pocket. I have been a freelancer full-time myself since 1994, with two short (less than one year) stints of full-time employment during that period.

If you’re willing to work hard, spend enough time marketing yourself to keep your work pipeline filled, and keep an eagle eye on the cash flow, you can make self-employment a viable approach to work. If you’re not that motivated, you’ll have to accept what you can find – and be prepared to search long and hard for work – in a market that appears to favor youth, energy, and untried potential over age, experience, and a tangible track record.

It ain’t easy, but then, why would they pay you to do such a job if it was?

Ed TittelEd Tittel

Ed Tittel is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who’s worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written and blogged for numerous publications, including Tom's Hardware, and is the author of over 140 computing books with a special emphasis on information security, Web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.

E-mail Ed at etittel@tomsitpro.com with your request for IT certification or career info, or your ideas for future blogs. If your e-mail leads him to a blog topic, he’ll have the Tom’s staff send you your very own Tom’s IT Pro t-shirt! Be the envy of your friends and colleagues, and help him help you with your IT career! If you do have a request for Ed, please read his How to Help Me Help You blog posting, and answer as many of the questions this post contains as are applicable to your situation and inquiry. Thanks in advance for helping make his job easier that way!

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