Are High-Tech Workers Also Like “Milk Cartons”?

Anthropologist Ashley Mears decided to learn more about the fashion industry and how it treats models by becoming one. Here’s one thing she learned:

The catch is that there simply isn’t much time to invest; the older a model gets, the more she “exudes failure,” Mears writes. She quotes a 23-year-old model who’d been instructed by her agency to say she was 19: “They said it’s like when you go to the grocery store to buy milk, which milk carton would you want, one that is going to expire tomorrow or one that will expire next week?”

I thought of this after reading this Boston Globe article about high-tech workers (boldface mine):

Brewster Smith specialized in mainframe systems for 35 years in the technology industry, recently converting his employer’s mainframe to servers that use newer programming languages. When Smith completed the project in July, his company laid him off because his skills no longer fit the new system.

“It will take at least two years to train you to be productive,” he recalled his Concord, N.H., employer telling him. “Why do that when we can just hire someone off the street and they’ll be productive immediately because they know the languages.”

Such workers represent a dark side of tech, an industry in which skills and people can quickly become obsolete and some companies, believing high unemployment will give them the pick of ready-to-produce workers, don’t provide training. The ability to learn new skills is rarely at the top of a recruiter’s job orders; many companies demand candidates with skills that perfectly match their requirements.

“They’ll give us literally a laundry list of 15 technologies,’’ said John McBride, vice president of sales at the Needham IT firm Syrinx Consulting. “If [candidates] don’t know one or two pieces, then they’re down.’’

It is a particular problem for older workers, many of whom have worked for the same company and with the same technology for years, and may not have kept up with mobile applications, web development, and cutting-edge programming languages.

People–academics mostly who have never had to compete in the private job market–often argue that job retraining would fix that problem. Erm, not so much:

Some of the technology is so new there are no classes that teach it. Dale Henderson, 64, of Chelmsford, looked to switch to software after devoting his career to hardware, but the courses he found offered basic skills he already knew.

“Most of the experience that companies were looking for was not taught at universities,’’ said Henderson, who has remained flexible throughout his career, first designing circuits and motherboards, then going into sales as a field applications engineer to show prospective buyers how semiconductors worked.

Did I mention something about academics? Yes, I did:

So what’s the answer? Technology-savvy developers and designers often turn to online forums and tutorials to teach themselves the latest technologies. Taking unpaid internships at innovative companies is another way to pick up new techniques, something midcareer professionals often can’t afford to do.

“If you want to be anywhere close to the cutting edge, you can’t expect that you’ll have a [paying] job when you start,” said Stephen Flavin, dean of academic and corporate development at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “If you really want to learn it you have to volunteer your time.”

So, let’s see: you’re supposed to work for next-to-nothing, have a brief lucrative period, and then become obsolete. Sounds exactly like the fashion biz.

Seriously, the ‘star’ system works well only when a field (business or academic) is growing. It’s an abysmal model in a stationary field, unless you happen to be one of the lucky ones who keeps working his or her way up. Once you hit a certain age, starting your life all over again, often at a lower income, just isn’t an option.

Not sure what to do about that.

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5 Responses to Are High-Tech Workers Also Like “Milk Cartons”?

  1. Tercelet says:

    The corporate perspective is that people are interchangeable cogs, to be discarded and replaced with cheaper as soon as there’s the first sign of wear.

    They’re very up front about it. Consider: all hiring is done through a division called not “personnel,” like they used to be, when we acknowledged that employee personhood, but “human resources.” Really think about that name. To businesses, to homo economicus, what verb goes with that noun, what does one do with a resource? Well one exploits it of course, like any commodity, looking for the cheapest supply possible to maximize output.

    But you well know that the last 30 years of American society have been a purposeful program to increase unemployment in order to hold down inflation and maximize corporate profits, so I’ll close.

  2. Nomen Nescio says:

    one of the main problems is that this “star system” is totally unnecessary in the tech biz.

    i’ve no idea what fashion modelling is like — though that article’s one brief mention about the “money girls” not working in high fashion seems to show that business could do without star power also — but in IT, knowing the specific ins and outs of a specific technology is chump change. learning such details is comparable to learning the specific details of a given problem, its business requirements, and the complexities of solving it with a computer program or system. far more important is knowing the basic logic underlying programming in general and the logical/mathematical problem solving approaches you’ll need. the rest you not only can learn as you go, but you’re better off doing so.

    demanding that a new hire come in the door knowing all those petty details is pointless, yet tech company HR departments tend to insist on it anyway. i can’t imagine why, except if HR people simply all have a horribly skewed misunderstanding of what IT work is really like.

  3. The worst part of it all is that the “laundry list of 15 technologies” is completely inane. Once you get the job you find they’re really only using 5 of them and the rest are buzzwords they thought were cool. Much of the time the people interviewing have no idea what the technologies actually do so they end up hiring poorly because they get the interview questions off the internet and don’t understand the answers. The people that get hired are frequently the people who found the same questions on the internet.
    They’ll hire the new person who is cheap or free and seems to know the new tech, but you get what you pay for much of the time and eventually they have to hire someone older to fix all the problems the cheap person has caused. Knowing the kinds of problems that can arise between systems or through user error comes with experience and the supposedly cheap person ends up costing more in the long run because of all the mistakes they make. This is also one reason why offshoring doesn’t work.

  4. I had such a job. I no longer have it. I’m now 52 years old… There’s no way to learn anything new, (where learn means prove I know what I already know) and then get back into the market.

    Of well.

  5. Kaleberg says:

    It’s basically just an excuse for age discrimination. There are an awful lot of buzzwords, but most of them are simply the names of different computer languages which are built on a common set of concepts and techniques. In fact, you’ll often hear a new buzzword technology described as simply buzzword A with a cleaner syntax for doing B or A with C’s D feature. If someone knows the basic concepts, typically from having used two or three implementations, they can usually become productive in a new technology in a matter of days and get up to full speed in a few weeks. I know, I’ve had to adapt to new technologies all too often and I’ve hired people with one background to work in a new one.

    The current attitude towards buzzword qualifications is like arguing that a carpenter is useless because they only know how to use a flat head screwdriver, but are not up on Philip’s or, god forbid, Torx screwdriver technology. It’s actually silly.

    What the real point is that the managers rarely cares about getting the project done, and they paritcularly care little about the quality. They care about empire building, and a properly failing software project provides much greater managerial rewards than a successful one. Let’s face it, a failing project gets more resources, more attention and more visibility. A successful project is quickly forgotten and will be written off as “too easy”. One major metric of success that determines manager importance and rewards is body count, so it always pays to hire two inexperienced programmers as opposed to one more experienced one, even if the latter is three or four times as productive and much more likely to contribute to a successful project. Of course, that is just what management does not want.

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