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How Can You Laugh at a Time Like This?

Willy Chaplin

No. 22

Out to pasture...

March 22, 1998

Yesterday, I wrote about an article I had read in the March 16th issue of U.S. News and World Report (see: Not so Simple City). That same issue also contained an article entitled "Too old to write code?" concerning the difficulty computer professionals over fifty years of age are having finding employment. One statement in the article says it all. The unemployment rate for such professionals is SEVENTEEN percent, versus a TWO percent rate for other professionals in that age group and about FIVE percent for the economy as a whole. U.S. News goes on to list various theories about the causes of this phenomenon along with a good deal of information concerning the programming field. But, I will speak to this from my personal experience, which is not inconsiderable (see: Willy's Online Resumé).

Those of you who regularly read my columns know that I have been bitching about this for months, ever since I found myself out of work last July and began what had ordinarily been the routine task of finding new paying work. Having good bullshit detectors, I quickly realized the corporate claims to not being "ageist" were just that...bullshit. I thought of falsifying my age, but who wants to work for someone to whom you have to lie to get your foot in the door? Besides, I'm not too good at it and then there is always that contradiction between revealing and concealing...revealing my vast experience, while concealing my age.

You have probably heard that there is a crying need for computer professionals, especially programmers. It has even been giving the rubric of "crisis." But, then, the print and broadcast media seem to have a crisis a week for our edification and titillation. Carefully reading the weekend want ads in the local paper clarified this situation somewhat. It became clear that:

  1. A large proportion of the ads were for entry level jobs. This was obvious both from the type of employment and the salaries offered. 20K a year is about what a skilled waitress makes. To offer that to someone who has spent years in college is a bit of an insult. For me, who could actually live on such a low salary, it's just boring. Besides I'm "over-qualified."

  2. Those that wanted experienced personnel often demanded very specific, even improbable, combinations of skills. Example: five years experience with C++, Oracle and UNIX in an insurance industry environment. This is called hiring by "skills matching," and ignores a cardinal rule of programming. Learning new programming languages and applications is trivial. Learning to program is NOT.

  3. Many of the best paying positions required relocation to a new city and state. This is hard on anybody, but especially on us old guys. I live in Minneapolis because I like it here. I am also used to it. I don't want to move to a different culture, a different climate and leave friends and family behind.

  4. Some of the mythical shortages, like that of JAVA programmers are just that...mythical. There were no jobs whatsoever asking for that particular skill, despite all the hype in computer magazines and journals on the subject. So much for learning new tricks.

Get the message? It is no wonder it is hard for "mature" programmers to find work. We really aren't suited for the "demands" of the industry, at least as currently perceived by hiring managers. They either want you to work long hours for low pay or to grossly disturb your style of life in order to fit their preconceived notions. Few other professional careers exact this type of tribute.

One "solution" to the shortage of programmers is currently being pushed through congress. That is, the computer industry wants the U.S. government to relax immigration restrictions for computer professionals. Typically immigrants are more likely to put up with long hours and short pay, as well as other inconveniences. This is bound to appeal to bean counting managerial types. My personal experience working with (or more often, cleaning up after) non-US talent is that the managers are usually getting just what they pay for. While diligent (especially Asians...Europeans being more used to a laid back work style), foreign programmers often lack much depth to their training and, of course, often have problems with English, especially colloquial American or jargon-laden English. They understand basic coding well, but fail when it comes to polishing software for commercial distribution. Also, since prepositions, so essential to the documentation of programs, are difficult to master in another tongue than your native language, notes written by these folks are often quite unintelligible. Imagine how damaging confusing the prepositions "to" and "from" can be to writing clear explanations!

But, it strikes me that this shortage opens up a huge window of opportunity for the United States to solve some endemic employment problems. First of all, women and non-whites have traditionally been excluded from computer jobs. I expect that it is also true that there is a large number in both these groups who would JUMP at the opportunity to enter at the 20K level, just as those kids in Simple City were eager to begin careers at the very bottom. And, I am not talking "affirmative action" here, but education. A very small amount of specialized training will go a very long way in upgrading the professional level and thus the salary levels of these typically underemployed groups.

How about letting out all those prisoners who have been convicted of drug crimes...after, of course, letting them use all that "free" time in prison to learn a computer skill? There are over a million incarcerated men in our society who would DIE for an opportunity like this...about half of them for drugs.

Finally, there are all us old dudes (unfortunately, few of us are female). Don't you think there has got to be a way to employ our skills productively? Doesn't it strike you as nearly criminal to mine the lodes of foreign educated programmers when there are so many older American professionals crying for work? After all, their native lands are going to need their skills real soon. The computer and Internet revolutions are global. Of course, we could always simply put the over-the-hillers on ice floes and set them adrift in the North Atlantic, as Eskimo tribes used to do.

As for me personally, I am really enjoying what I am doing. Of course, given an offer I can't refuse, I would probably go back to programming...especially if the application really turned me on. For now, however, I'm just going to keep on keepin' on, writing this daily column and trying for my own fifteen minutes of fame this way. Hope you approve...

See you tomorrow...

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