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By Jack Ganssle

Age Discrimination

Published 8/10/2003

A suit against IBM alleges the company targeted older engineers when terminating 988 employees from a Vermont facility last year. The complaint suggests that workers aged 45 and older were axed disproportionately. The company, of course, denies any such action or intent.

I have no idea if there's any validity to the suit. But in the 30 years I've been in this business one constant is the sense that older engineers get replaced by recent grads. I've been unable to find any hard data to support this fear. but it sure seems job security diminishes as one ages.

Surely, though, bosses are in a tough position when it's time to trim the workforce. One old fart may command twice the salary of a newcomer. Is the more mature worker twice as productive? My sense is that after a few years of OJT a young engineer, especially one writing code, is not substantially less efficient than the oldie. At least at doing routine work.

But special circumstances do arise where experience quickly swats down a problem that might baffle younger folks for a long time. That weird race condition, intermittent priority inversions, and other complex phenomenon yield to deep knowledge and prior experience much more readily than to enthusiastic hacking.

But such events are rare and largely fall under a boss's radar screen. Need to cut $200k from the department's payroll? It looks more humane and seems easier to eliminate two expensive old folks instead of 5 youngsters.

It's discouraging to note that one article about the IBM dispute is adjacent to an ad soliciting a senior systems architect who "will make fundamental contributions within the fields of biology, chemistry, and medicine". Qualifications? The ad asks for the applicant's GPAs, GREs, and (no kidding) SAT scores. How many 45 year old engineers remember their SATs. and what difference could those so-ancient-numbers make? This carefully worded message clearly targets youngsters, barely skirting equal employment opportunity laws.

Compensation for the job? "Above market". In other words, invent whole new technologies in three different fields for a few bucks more than your colleagues. But be prepared to be tossed on the scrapheap when a few gray hairs appear.

Does older folks' experience and wisdom translate into more corporate profits? I don't know but have certainly seen many instances where the old salt quickly solves what had appeared to be an intractable problem.

Do companies have a social responsibility to create and maintain markets for engineers of all ages? In our capitalistic economy probably not.

Like the cardboard cup one casually tosses in the trashbin after hitting the Starbucks, engineers are disposable commodities. Experience and wisdom, those two products of age and maturity, are as valued as an old 4 inch wafer fab.

And I do know that that is a tragedy.