IT Management

Common wisdom in the industry holds that mainframe professionals comprise a demographic with an average age of 56. Ageism, therefore, probably plays a role in the perception of mainframers by senior managers, who increasingly make decisions about the future of corporate IT. As “isms” go, ageism is actually a neutral term. It refers to a predisposition about age that can be either positive or negative. It’s sometimes “anti-age” and sometimes “pro-age.” Let me explain. 

On one hand, there’s the “don’t trust anyone over 30” mindset. You’ve heard the claims that older folks are set in their ways, not conversant in the latest technologies—if not downright resistant to them, more conservative and risk adverse, and less motivated to learn new things. 

On the other hand, there’s the “experience counts” mindset. Code phrases include ideas that true wisdom is born of age and experience, older folks rein in the excesses of youth, and older workers have minds less cluttered by the natural urges that consume an average of 4 minutes out of each hour of the mental energy of younger workers. 

Both views are incorrect, of course. It is silly to view the 50-plus crowd (which I recently joined) as such an undifferentiated group. However, from a business/statistical perspective, analyses show that older workers are a special cost center in any company, since they are generally paid more than their younger counterparts and are more costly to insure. Taken together, these statistics may well influence corporate bean counters with respect to their staffing decisions. 

However, the studies also show that older workers tend to be more punctual than their younger peers, tend to focus better, and be more productive at work—where we tend to show up on more days of any given month than our younger counterparts. Plus, seasoned workers are less likely to change employers at the drop of a hat in pursuit of incremental pay increases, partly because such shifts would jeopardize their seniority status and/or their retirement plans (even in these days of 401k’s becoming 101k’s). 

Taken together, these two sets of data should enable some rational decision-making about staffing, providing some clear cost-benefit trade-offs that should make a case for hiring or retaining more senior staffers in IT. And that’s where ageist bias enters the mix; it may tilt the scales for or against senior staffers. 

It doesn’t stop with hiring. Age bias also seems to influence management views of the future of mainframe technology itself. From recent conversations with C-level executives and in monitoring a recent conversation on age and jobs in the mainframe community, negative ageism is impacting mainframe plans and the staffing components of those plans. 

First, some companies persist in pursuing plans to migrate away from mainframes, which they’ve been told is yesterday’s technology. Decision-makers are hearing that the aging mainframe workforce isn’t being replaced by new blood, so the skillsets required to maintain the platform are going away. And, of course, they’re reading about IBM’s mainframe sales revenue—down for the past two quarters.  

On the latter point, mainframe advocates correctly assert that the reduced earnings to vendors from sales of mainframe products are expressed on a year-over-year basis, which means next to nothing given the huge surge of revenues experienced by Big Blue, CA, Compuware, BMC, and others over the past several years. Moreover, revenue shortfalls aren’t contained to mainframe products. Even the distributed systems vendors have felt the pain of an overall reduction in IT spending during these lean economic times. 

The issue of a declining mainframe-capable workforce continues to nag, however. One consequence of the view that mainframers are an aging breed is the tendency in many companies to bring in experienced mainframe hands only on a short-term, contract basis. This seems to reflect a lack of commitment to the platform or its administrative crew. In some cases, decision-makers frankly assert they’re pursuing a “holding action,” designed to keep the mainframe going until the economy turns around and their expensive migration projects can be fully funded.  

Some mainframers are unhappy about this trend. And so am I. The word “mentoring” comes to mind as a remedy for the aging mainframe workforce. Mentoring is having seasoned folks help newbies learn the job on the job. Mentoring had better start happening soon—and not just in the mainframe world, but also in distributed computing shops. PricewaterhouseCoopers recently released a study about the lack of qualified IT workers in the current job market. According to their 2009 benchmark, 60 percent of 120 IT organizations said they can’t find competent IT folks.

Do the math. Leave the bias at home.