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Tech hiring is tough on veteran workers

Keeping up with the latest gets ever-harder

'The prospects are pretty bleak for what I'm doing,' said Brewster Smith, an out-of-work mainframe specialist. "The prospects are pretty bleak for what I'm doing," said Brewster Smith, an out-of-work mainframe specialist. (Jessey Dearing for The Boston Globe)
By Katie Johnston
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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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.’’

The high-tech labor market may be on fire, but not for workers like Smith, who haven’t kept up to date and have found that skills that kept them working just a few years ago are no longer in demand. Even as some firms decry a looming labor shortage in the industry, many educated, experienced, and technically savvy workers are finding themselves shut out of the latest tech boom.

Smith, for instance, recently got a call from John Hancock Financial Services, but the conversation ended quickly when the hiring manager found out he didn’t know the .NET framework for Microsoft Windows.

“The prospects are pretty bleak for what I’m doing,’’ Smith said.

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.

The automotive website CarGurus.com in Harvard Square, for example, is so intent on finding the most qualified software engineers that it offers a $20,000 bonus to employees who make successful referrals.

Oliver Chrzan, vice president of engineering at CarGurus, knows he is not going to find people with a lot of experience with new programming languages such as Ruby and Python. What he looks for in the 100 or so resumes he scans to fill each position is evidence that the candidate has tried to keep current.

“If they’ve been working in the same technology for a long period of time, then the concern is: Can they learn the new technology when it comes along quickly?’’ Chrzan said.

Those who take on management roles can remove themselves even further from the latest advances in technology.

Elliott Kleinrock, a programmer from Burlington, Conn., who writes C++ code that “moves money around,’’ has been laid off four times since 1993, but has never had such a hard time finding another job. Kleinrock found plenty of job openings for Java programmers, but very few that matched his older C++ skills. After 10 months of looking, he recently landed a position at one of the dwindling number of companies that still uses C++.

“People are going to need C++ programmers for a long while,’’ said Kleinrock, 47. “The problem is: How many?’’

Kleinrock said he now plans to take classes to learn Java, in case he’s laid off again. But, with technology advancing at a dizzying pace, enrolling in programs to update skills might not be enough for midcareer professionals. By the time they finish a degree program “ the technology is dramatically different,’’ said Nancy Snyder, president of the Commonwealth Corp., the state’s quasi-public workforce training agency.

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.

But with much of hardware design, manufacturing, and sales now done overseas, Henderson hasn’t found steady work since he was laid off in 2002 - despite his MBA and bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He found a few contract positions, and even briefly took a job as a security guard, before giving up his search. “In order to get a steady income, I had to retire.’’

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.’’

Some unemployed tech workers have nearly given up hope that their skills will ever be relevant again.

In the 1990s, Jon Baker made well over $100,000 a year as a technical writer, documenting user instructions for software, computers, and high-end printers, and fielding a constant stream of offers for new projects.

Today, unemployed for two and a half years, Baker, 62, of Sudbury, spends his days looking for jobs, networking with other unemployed tech workers, and creating coffee table books out of family photos.

With people getting product information by reading online postings by users and figuring out devices intuitively, companies are providing fewer instruction manuals, he said. On top of that, some technical writing jobs have been shipped overseas. And this has decimated the profession. When Baker was a board member of the Society for Technical Communication about a decade ago, there were about 24,000 members worldwide; today, there are fewer than 7,000.

“The profession has pretty much collapsed as far as I can tell, and I don’t see a lot of reason for it coming back,’’ said Baker, who has looked into becoming a business analyst or project manager. “I may be at the point of being left behind.’’

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com.